In April, faculty at the University of St. Thomas's Justice and Peace Studies program were on track to book celebrated civil rights activist and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a campus visit. But school administrators blocked the invitation amid concerns that Tutu's outspoken criticism of Israel's policies toward Palestinians would offend local Jews.
Outraged, Professor Cris Toffolo, the chair of program, wrote a letter to Tutu informing him of the university's decision and warning him that he might face similar opposition elsewhere. Riled by Toffolo's insubordination, university officials stripped her of her chair.
City Pages learned of the controversy and broke the story several weeks ago. Other media outlets quickly picked it up, triggering an international outcry. Facing a barrage of angry emails and phone calls, University President Dennis Dease publicly admitted he'd made a mistake and reinvited Tutu to speak.
Last week, Tutu took a brief break from his lecture tour in Boston to give City Pages his take on the controversy.
City Pages: What was your initial reaction when you found out St. Thomas was unwilling to host your appearance?
Desmund Tutu: I was sorry, yes. I was distressed that a university seemed to be going against its very name, because even if one was saying things that were provocative or hurtful, normally you would have thought that a university would say, "We'll give the person an opportunity to speak and we can challenge him." I mean, Columbia University—even though they behaved very badly—invited the president of Iran, and obviously they were not in agreement with his point of view. But the important thing is that it was brought up, and I want to commend President Dease for doing something that is not easy to do, which is to acknowledge publicly that he had made a mistake. They apologized and I have accepted that apology and I commend him for his magnanimity, his graciousness in doing that. And I think that that's one of the important things that has come out of this.
CP: And you replied that you would accept the invitation to speak if the university would reinstate Professor Cris Toffolo to her position as chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program?
CP: How does that stand right now? Have you been in contact with the professor?
Tutu: Well, I gather that they have a process in the university, which she's free to use. I mean, I'm not interested in the internal workings of the university. I just wanted to say that for me it would be a matter of principle that—it seemed to me that she was being victimized for having been a whistle-blower. I wouldn't want to go into the details of the inner workings of the university. I have adjusted my position and it is up to them to do as the university regulations and procedures make provision for.
CP: Critics point to a speech you made in 2002, in which you said, "The Jewish lobby is very powerful." Could you expand on what you meant by that? Was it taken out of context?
Tutu: Well, I don't think we want to go over all of that. I said what I said. I stand by what I said then and what I said two or so weeks ago here in Boston at the Sabeel Conference. I'm seeking to be—I think I'm consistent in my own positions. I oppose injustice and oppression everywhere...I'm involved with trying to see whether we can do something in Burma. I'm involved in Darfur. I have spoken up against injustice in Zimbabwe.
And I could say modestly that I've never been anti any group of persons. I have been anti the injustice or the policies that those particular people carried out, as I've been opposed to the policies, say, of President Reagan when he had constructive engagement for South Africa, which did not make me anti-American. I opposed, and I still do, the policies of President Bush with regard to Iraq. But that doesn't make me anti-American. I would oppose the injustice that I saw with my own eyes and the reports that have come out about what is happening to the Palestinian people. That doesn't make me anti-Jewish. I am anti-injustice and oppression and I hope I will always be that. And it saddens me greatly that instead of pointing out that what I say is wrong factually, they seek to vilify me. And not point out or challenge the validity of what one is saying. If it is untrue that the wall has caused considerable suffering, if it is untrue that people have been made to suffer considerably because of the checkpoints and all of that, all they have to do is say, "No, that didn't happen. That didn't happen. This is untrue." But if it is true, then they also ought to acknowledge, as many Jews in Israel do, that what is happening is absolutely contrary to the principles on which the Jewish people have been founded. But that's enough of that now.
CP: Switching gears a little bit: Your appearance at Metro State is in conjunction with Peace Jam, which centers very much on youth activism. What's your take on today's youth?
Tutu: There's this idea that young people are less politically engaged than in generations past. The ones that I have met have always impressed me as being as idealistic as youth have ever been. The first four months of this year I was traveling on Semester at Sea with 700 or so college students, most of them from the United States. They are just exhilarating and they fill you with a great deal of pride and joy at how they care. They care about poverty, they care about war. Yes, there are those of them who are maybe indifferent. But those are the exceptions.
My own take is that young people are as idealistic as they ever were. I mean, look at things like Make Poverty History: It's mainly young people who are involved with that. And I've just come away from visiting Darfur, and many of those who are working in the humanitarian organizations—which must be commended to the skies, I mean they are doing incredible work—they are relatively young people who could be making a decent living in more safe, more salubrious circumstances, and they don't. They work in places that are dangerous and places where you would have thought young people would not want to go. I take my hat off to them. I salute them and think they are some of the best collaborates God could ever have wished for. Okay, I've got to go now!
CP: All right, well thank you so much for taking the time and good luck with everything you're doing.
Tutu: God bless you. Well, you are young, too, you see, and you're concerned about all of these things, so you are one of the proofs that I can bring forward to point up my case.
CP: Well, that's a huge honor and I really appreciate that and thanks so much again.
Tutu: God bless you. Bye.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.