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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Tutu stands in solidarity with St. Thomas professor


Archbishop Desmond Tutu, initially barred from speaking at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. (NCR, Oct. 19) and now invited, says he will not accept the invitation unless a demoted professor is reinstated as the director of the university’s Justice and Peace Studies program.

Cris Toffolo

Cris Toffolo, who continues on the faculty as an assistant professor of political science, was dismissed as director of the Justice and Peace Studies program Aug. 1, amid a dispute over the university’s decision not to host the Nobel peace laureate.

Writing to Toffolo last month, Tutu said he would make acceptance of a speaking engagement at the university “dependent on your reinstatement and the clearing of your file.”

A university spokesperson told NCR that St. Thomas president Fr. Dennis Dease is writing to Tutu to explain the situation and to inform him that Toffolo can appeal her dismissal as program head through a grievance procedure, which could lead to her being reinstated.

University spokesman Doug Hennes said that if Toffolo requested a grievance proceeding, her case would go before a faculty committee. “We do have a process,” he said.

But Toffolo said a “grievance process wouldn’t make sense” for her because the president has the power to overturn the faculty committee’s decision.

Still, she added, there are bigger issues at play in this controversy. She said she believes her reinstatement would send a “positive message to senior faculty that they can take a leadership role” without worrying about being penalized.

Tutu was originally scheduled to come to St. Thomas in April 2008 as the keynote speaker for a youth conference on peacemaking that was cosponsored by the university’s Justice and Peace Studies program.

But last spring, Dease said the school would not host the Anglican cleric because his criticisms of Israel were “hurtful” to some members of the Jewish community. Toffolo and faculty member Fr. David Smith notified Tutu of the cancellation in late May. Two months later, Toffolo was demoted.

Dease’s decision evoked a firestorm of criticism and in early October he reversed himself, inviting Tutu to speak at St. Thomas next spring. But the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Tutu informed Dease in an Oct. 21 e-mail that he would not come unless Toffolo is “reinstated and any negative remarks about the incident” removed from her file.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Toffolo, the university’s executive vice president and chief academic officer, Thomas Rochan, cited her letter to Tutu as among the reasons for her dismissal. It contained “deep distortions” of Dease’s position, was sent to other individuals, and signed by her as the director of the Justice and Peace Studies program -- actions that he called “an abuse of your administrative position.”

There are many “factual errors and erroneous claims in the Aug. 1 letter,” Toffolo wrote in a detailed letter challenging Rochon’s criticism.

She “vehemently objected” to the accusation that she exposed an internal university matter to an outside audience. The matter was “already outside the university,” she noted, because the president had discussed Tutu’s speaking engagement with a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Tom Connery, a journalism professor and former academic dean who hired Toffolo as the director of Justice and Peace Studies, said her brisk dismissal was “surprising” for St. Thomas where conflicts with faculty have traditionally been settled “more informally.” Her demotion has had a chilling effect on campus, he said. “Vindictive” is the word some faculty members are using to describe Toffolo’s dismissal, Connery said.

One hundred faculty and staff signed a petition, organized by the campus group Progressive Alliance, calling for Toffolo’s reinstatement. The group held a rally for her reinstatement Oct. 23. The Star Tribune reported 40 people attended the event.

Tutu is set to speak at the 2008 PeaceJam, which is now scheduled to be held at the Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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