St. Thomas reverses ban on Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is introduced during a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in September.
NICHOLAS ROBERTS/AFP/Getty Images

Father Dennis Dease, the president of St.Thomas, was contrite in a letter sent to faculty and students. He said his earlier decision to bar Archbishop Tutu from campus was wrong. University spokesman Doug Hennes says this latest reversal is the result of additional input since the issue became public.

"Obviously many more people have weighed in with their opinions on the matter and as he says in his statement, although the original decision was well intentioned, he did not have all the facts and points of view. Now he does."

Dease writes that he wrestled with the decision. He says the university should be a place to speak freely and be open to other points of view. He renewed the invitation and offered to also host an additional forum for a reasoned debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tutu was originally scheduled to come to St. Thomas next April as part of an annual event called PeaceJam. But Dease heard from some Twin Cities Jewish leaders that Tutu had once made comments interpreted as offensive to some Jews.

The administration had been stung by criticism over an earlier campus appearance by controversial conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

Dease rescinded the offer to host Tutu, hoping to avoid additional controversy. Instead, he set off a fire storm from faculty, students, outside religious leaders and others, questioning the wisdom of barring the internationally renowned peace advocate.

St. Thomas associate professor of Theology David Landry welcomed the administration's turnabout.

"I think they may have thought this would never come out. Once it did come out, they may not have realized the depth of the reaction there would be from all over the country -- and certainly from all quarters of the university there was a protest raised about this. I think that pressure may have built up and they finally realized the depth of this misjudgment."

Landry is among the faculty who drafted and sent a letter urging the administration to reconsider its stance. While praising the decision, Landry remains concerned about the administration's actions against an early critic of the policy. Chris Toffolo was removed as chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program after she protested the decision earlier this year.

"She was the one who was advocating for Tutu to be able to speak here. She was the one who resisted the decision. It seems as if she showed very wise and prudential judgment and it seems like the height of injustice that she would be punished or fired for making what was really the right call," Landry says.

Spokesman Hennes says Toffolo will not be reappointed to the administrative post. He says the decision to remove her is related to the Tutu dispute, but not because of her criticism of the administration.

St.Thomas' decision to now welcome Tutu comes months after organizers of the April event have readjusted their plans. He will appear, instead, at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and the well-coordinated schedule may not now be able to accommodate an additional event at St. Thomas.

The group, youthrive, organizes the PeaceJam event that St. Thomas has hosted for the past four years. Each year organizers bring in a different Nobel Peace Prize laureate to meet with young people to promote peace making activities. Youthrive director Donna Gillen says the group has found a permanent, willing partner with Metro State.

"It's been a really amazing partnership. They really have put the entire university behind supporting the work that we're doing. It's going really, really well and we're looking forward to an ongoing relationship with them."

The PeaceJam event, including a public lecture with Archbishop Tutu is scheduled at Metro State next April 11 through April 13.

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