Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Archbishop Tutu Challenges Catholic University to Uphold Academic Freedom

The 11/2 print edition of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) has a follow-up article on the continuing controversy at a St. Paul, MN, Catholic university over its president's decision to bar Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu as keynote speaker for an on-campus youth conference on peacemaking, cosponsored by the university's Justice and Peace Studies program.

Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate for taking the lead in ending South African apartheid with minimal violence and broadly inclusive reconciliation, was invited to the University of St. Thomas to speak in April 2008 at an event called Peace-Jam.

But last May, Fr. Dennis Dease, the university president, revoked the invitation after the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, which lobbies in favor of the Israeli government, said Tutu's criticisms of Israel were "hurtful" to some in the Jewish community. Two months after Tutu was told of the revocation, a faculty committee dismissed professor Cris Toffolo as director of the Justice and Peace Studies program.

In October Dease reversed himself and reinvited Tutu to speak at the campus. However, Dease did not overturn the faculty committee's decision to demote Toffolo, even though 100 faculty and staff signed a petition calling for her reinstatement and 40 people attended a rally supporting her on 10/23.

After Tutu was disinvited, the 2008 Peace-Jam was moved to Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, with Tutu still the keynote speaker. NCR and the Minneapolis Star Tribune both report Tutu is open to accepting the new invitation to St. Thomas--but that he has told both Toffolo and Dease in writing that he will not do so unless Tofollo is reinstated and all negative documentation about the matter is removed from her record.

Like Tofollo's supporters, Tutu sees her demotion as a significant attack on academic freedom and reversing it essential to reassuring the faculty that they can take leadership roles on engaging significant issues without being penalized. Of course, accrediting agencies will also regard the university unfavorably if the demotion is allowed to stand.

But a new word of caution for all concerned. Archbishop Tutu has long been an outspoken advocate of gay rights and a vocal opponent of discrimination against gay people. His position on those topics is quite in contrast with several official positions of the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. bishops.

That's no more reason to deprive a Catholic university community of his thoughts on peace than the qualms of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. But it is the kind of objection that right-wing Catholics and evangelicals have raised against speakers at other Catholic universities. It should not surprise anyone at St. Thomas, including Fr. Dease, if someone raises it there.

Hopefully they have learned their lesson and won't again make the mistake of sacrificing academic freedom to political pressure.

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