Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The decision by St. Thomas not to invite Desmond Tutu to speak reflects a recurring tension at colleges nationwide.

At this point, Hennes said, Dease is not reconsidering his decision but is looking "at the possibility of a forum to talk about issues that have been raised so far and we will consider that."

I have a suggestion for a topic for a forum: " Should St Thomas be a Catholic University?"

On the University of St. Thomas campus on Monday, activists unfurled a large banner: "Let Tutu Speak!"

By Monday evening, St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease, had received more than 2,500 e-mails from a national Jewish peace group urging him to reverse his decision not to invite Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu to campus.

"There is an overwhelming majority of students who are appalled by this," said Stephanie Edquist, 21, editor of the student newspaper. "Students are saying. 'Who else is going to be restricted from coming to campus?'"

The escalating controversy reflects a tension at colleges nationwide, one pitting free speech and academic freedom against views some find objectionable.

Last month, Columbia University's decision to allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak drew protesters. Speakers with strong political opinions -- from Ann Coulter on the right to Michael Moore on the left -- regularly draw ire on campuses. Many religious-affiliated universities have taken heat for speakers who hold positions that, some say, go against particular doctrines.

What has changed of late has been the reaction of some colleges and universities. There is a growing trend, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), of schools inviting speakers and then un-inviting them after opposition groups turn up the heat.

St. Thomas never invited Tutu to speak, but declined to approve an invitation as part of the PeaceJam, an event the school has hosted for the past four years. PeaceJam officials have now arranged to have the South African archbishop and activist speak at its April event, which will be held at Metropolitan State University.

St. Thomas officials said that local Jewish leaders they consulted felt that Tutu had made remarks offensive to the Jewish people in a 2002 speech about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Academic freedom

But AAUP president Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois, contends that allowing speakers with varying viewpoints is essential to academic freedom.

"If people on a campus are willing to stand back and tolerate speech from groups they oppose, they can win their own freedom to invite their own speaker the next time around," Nelson said.

Last month, the AAUP issued an open letter about the importance of free speech and the marketplace of ideas on a university campus.

"You fold on one kind of speaker and then there's no limits," Nelson said. "If you start caving, where are you going to draw the line? How can you draw a line? Our educational system works best when there is a tolerance of a wide range of views on campus."

One thing that is often lost, Nelson said, is that inviting someone to speak is not the same as endorsing what they have to say.

That's part of why Nelson called St. Thomas' decision "pathetic."I'm not in personal agreement with everything Desmond Tutu has said and done in his career, but a more distinguished figure to bring to a university campus is hard to imagine.

"You want to hear Tutu because he's more than just a national figure, but an international figure, and it's exciting to see people with that kind of influence and ask them questions and interact with them."

Gerald Rinehart, the vice provost for student affairs at the University of Minnesota, said the state's largest school has a pretty open policy when it comes to speakers.

"In general, the way to respond to speech you don't agree with is with more speech, not by silencing or trying to avoid that point of view," Rinehart said.

Tutu spoke at the U of M in 2003. There has been little controversy at the university since Michael Moore's appearance for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004. That, however, could change over the next 13 months.

"We anticipate that with the Republican National Convention [coming to the Twin Cities], there will be lots of opportunities for controversy," Rinehart said.

In 2005, St. Thomas came under fire for permitting an appearance by conservative author and commentator Coulter, sponsored by the College Republicans and another student group. Dease issued a statement afterward, saying her "performance went far beyond the bounds of what is commonly accepted as civil discourse."I think we learned a lesson from that speech," said Doug Hennes, a university vice president. "We need to look carefully at who we invite to be speakers on campus."

At this point, Hennes said, Dease is not reconsidering his decision but is looking "at the possibility of a forum to talk about issues that have been raised so far and we will consider that."

Asked whether Tutu would speak, Hennes said, "I don't know if it would involve Tutu or not. If we did it, we would have to get his agreement."

A university source said such a forum would likely include a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Holding up one side of the banner at the St. Thomas campus on Monday was Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent whose daughter, Bette, graduated from St. Thomas this spring.

"It's not just academic freedom that's under attack," said Rowley. She said the concept of peace and justice is also at stake.

Request to reconsider

Theology Prof. David Landry said that the Progressive Alliance, a St. Thomas faculty group, planned to circulate two petitions this week, one asking Dease to reconsider his decision, the other asking him to reinstate Cris Toffolo, who was removed as director of St. Thomas's peace and justices studies program.

Toffolo, who remains on the faculty, said she was removed because she pressed the university to allow Tutu to speak. Dease denies that was the reason but would not discuss the issue.

At a meeting of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association on Monday, rabbis talked about the Tutu issue and expressed concern that the public might mistakenly think that St. Thomas made the decision based on the request of local Jewish groups, said Rabbi Sim Glaser of Temple Israel in Minneapolis. Glaser and Dease said that was not the case.

"I would have had no problem with them allowing him to speak," said Glaser, who is not a spokesman for the group, "but if individuals had taken issue with what he said, or what he stands for, they should be given the right to respond publicly." StarTribune

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