University Says No, Then Yes to Tutu: Nobel Laureate's Comments on Israeli Occupation Are at Heart of St. Thomas Brouhaha

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The trouble began for the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., when City Pages, the Minneapolis-St. Paul alternative weekly, reported Oct. 3 that the diocesan-owned Catholic university had refused to host Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu because his criticisms of Israeli policy toward Palestinians offended some members of the Jewish community.

News of the decision precipitated a weeklong outpouring of criticism that began with faculty and students on the campus, including a faculty petition drive, and quickly spread to national email campaigns and condemnatory editorials and blog postings. It all culminated in a reversal of the decision by university president Fr. Dennis Dease, who wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to university faculty, students and staff that he had "made the wrong decision earlier this year not to invite the archbishop. Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do."

According to City Pages, Jim Winterer, a spokesman for the university, said the outcry was impossible to ignore. "Fr. Dease was in touch with a lot more people this time than he was the first time around," said a story posted on the paper's Web site Oct. 10. "Calls were coming in from around the world."

The controversy reflects the urgent need for an open debate on U.S.-Israeli foreign policy, said Cris Toffolo, an assistant professor of political science and former head of the Justice and Peace Studies program who lost her job as the program's leader after she notified Tutu of the university's cancellation. "The treatment of Tutu is not an isolated case," Toffolo said. "How many academics have been caught up in this issue, denied tenure, denied jobs because they spoke critically of Israeli action in the occupied territories?"

Indeed, in his letter reversing his decision, Dease said he "would look forward to a candid discussion about how a civil and democratic society can pursue reasoned debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other emotionally charged issues."

The brouhaha began last spring after Michael Klein, a staffer at St. Thomas, informed the administration that Tutu was the designated speaker for PeaceJam International. The program, which originated in Denver in 1996 after the city endured a particularly violent summer, links high school students with Nobel Peace laureates who encourage the teens to become global peacemakers.

In 2003, St. Thomas partnered with YouThrive, PeaceJam's local affiliate for the upper Midwest region. The university has provided the venue for the program's annual weekend conference, hosting Nobel Prize winners such as Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberto Menchu Tum and Iranian attorney Shirin Ebadi. About 300 to 500 students participate in the conference after first engaging in local service projects they select. Then they meet with the Nobel laureate whom they have studied all year.

Klein said the partnership was very positive and Dease once described PeaceJam as a "signature program."

Although PeaceJam works with a pool of 10 laureates, YouThrive's executive director Donna Gillen said the program's teen leaders were particularly captivated by the "youthful" Tutu, who is 76, and requested him for their 2008 conference after hearing him speak in Denver last year.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Prior to Tutu, the university's approval for the designated laureates had been "completely routine," said Toffolo. So faculty members were shocked when administrators informed them St. Thomas would not host the world-renowned civil rights activist.

"I'm not going to make any judgments as to whether or not Tutu is anti-Semitic," said Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, in discussing the original decision to ban Tutu. "We know that things he has said about Israel have been hurtful to the Jewish community. …