Oct. 10: About-face: Tutu gets St. Thomas invite

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2007 - 8:01 PM

The president of the St. Paul university changed his mind, but it's unclear whether the Nobel laureate will appear on campus.

Desmond Tutu
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Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu

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Pressure on the University of St. Thomas began building the moment word got out that the school didn't want Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu speaking on its St. Paul campus.

The school was panned locally, nationally and internationally. There was a protest. A nationally known poet canceled an appearance.

The firestorm was enough to make St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, change his mind. On Wednesday, Dease wrote a letter to the St. Thomas community that was both an abrupt about-face and an invitation to the South African cleric and activist to speak at St. Thomas.

"I have wrestled with what is the right thing to do in this situation, and I have concluded that I made the wrong decision earlier this year not to invite the archbishop," Dease wrote. "Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do."

For the past four years, St. Thomas has served as the host for PeaceJam, a weekend event featuring a Nobel laureate. When youthrive, the local affiliate for PeaceJam, approached St. Thomas with the news that it had invited the South African Anglican archbishop to speak, the Roman Catholic university decided not to host the event. St. Thomas officials said local Jewish leaders they consulted felt that Tutu had made offensive remarks in a 2002 speech about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

However, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote a letter to Dease that said, "while Archbishop Tutu is not a friend of Israel, we do not believe he is an anti- Semite." Foxman added that Tutu should have been permitted to speak at St. Thomas.

Now that is possible, although because of Tutu's schedule, it may not happen.

When St. Thomas backed out as the PeaceJam host, youthrive moved its April 11-13 event to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul. Donna Gillen, executive director of youthrive, said Tutu's schedule is full for that weekend, but she wouldn't rule out a St. Thomas appearance by Tutu.

Tutu's personal assistant in South Africa said the archbishop had not received an invitation and could not comment.

Dease was not available for comment beyond the letter, but spokesman Doug Hennes said, "He looked at this thing very carefully over the past week, ever since the first story came out, and decided he made the wrong decision."

St. Thomas continued to feel the impact of the original Tutu decision on Wednesday when Lucille Clifton, a National Book Award-winning poet, canceled a visit to the university. Clifton, of Columbia, Md., had been invited to appear as part of a CommUNITY Week Celebration at St. Thomas.

In a letter to Lawrence Potter, head of the university's Office of Institutional Diversity, Clifton wrote:

"It is with deep regret that I must cancel my visit. ... I have spent my life trying to be a human of integrity and hope and peace; and I find it difficult to speak and model these things in light of the situation concerning Bishop Tutu."

When told of the university's change of heart, Clifton "indicated that she might come in the spring if I wanted to invite her," Potter said. He said he thought Dease's announcement was "a good step in the right direction."

Marv Davidov, a peace activist who teaches at St. Thomas, said Dease had no choice. "He's a good guy; he made a terrible blunder, a mistake in judgment," Davidov said.

Davidov also wants Cris Toffolo reinstated as director of the university's justice and peace program. Toffolo, who pushed for the Tutu visit, remains on the faculty.

"The decision on her remains the same," Hennes said. "She was removed for how she handled the Tutu situation. She was not removed because of any private or public disagreement."

Student reaction

St. Thomas student body president Carl Mickman was pleased with Dease's decision.

"It showed a lot of character on [Dease's] part and I think ... a lot of people were happy with the decision," he said.

Stephanie Edquist, editor of the student newspaper, said the decision was essential to preserve the university's reputation. Most students and faculty wanted Tutu to speak, and donors and alumni "were feeling so appalled they were threatening to withdraw their connections to the university," she said.

In his letter, Dease also said that the school will hold a forum to discuss issues in the Middle East, cosponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The hope is that Tutu will participate.

"All the parties involved learned something," said Steve Hunegs, executive director of the community relations council. "We should make it clear ... that we are strong supporters of free speech on Middle East issues and all other important issues. That's even more important in context of Archbishop Tutu, who is a great champion of civil rights."

Staff writers Sally Williams and Randy Furst contributed to this report. Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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