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Exchange of Letters: Michigan State and ADL
The following is an exchange of letters between the Anti-Defamation League and Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon, President of Michigan State University, regarding the university’s announcement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the May 2009 commencement speaker.

  April 3, 2009

Dr. Lou Anna K. Simon
President
Michigan State University
450 Administration Building
East Lansing, MI  48824

Dear President Simon:

We are concerned that Michigan State University has invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to deliver the commencement address at graduation ceremonies this year.

We know you and the MSU community share our view that the free exchange of ideas among scholars should not be held hostage to political differences.  As you noted in your July 31, 2007 Message From the President’s desk explaining your decision to join President Bollinger and more than 200 other U.S. college and university presidents

“At issue is whether free intellectual exchange and scholarly activity should be casualties of political disagreements and whether the threat of withholding them is an appropriate tool.  We say no.” 

Archbishop Tutu has been a vocal and strident critic of Israel.  At times, his statements about Israel have conveyed outright bigotry against the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people.  While odious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish expressions would not disqualify him as a speaker on your campus, we believe you may not be aware of Archbishop Tutu’s longstanding support for boycotting Israel. 

The most recent example of Archbishop Tutu’s deep involvement in the anti-Israel boycott effort is his participation in the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI).  On March 30, 2009 the USACBI announced the formation of an Advisory Board which prominently includes Bishop Tutu as a member.  The USACBI refers to Israel’s “illegal occupation of Palestine and its apartheid system” and calls for “the complete academic and cultural boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”  By joining the USACBI Advisory Board, Archbishop Tutu has unequivocally endorsed an academic boycott based on ideas that are anti-Semitic and should be anathema to any institution of higher learning truly committed to academic freedom.  A copy of the USACBI press release is enclosed.

We urge MSU to uphold the principles you described to the MSU community in your 2007 message and which President Bollinger eloquently set out in the letter you and so many other campus leaders joined.  In doing so, we ask you to reconsider the invitation extended to Archbishop Tutu unless he publicly repudiates the USACBI and its repugnant and blatantly anti-Semitic call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

Should you wish to discuss this very difficult issue with us, please call either of the undersigned.

Very truly yours,

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Betsy Kellman
Regional Director
Michigan Region




  April 6, 2009

Mr. Abraham H. Foxman, National Director, and
Ms. Betsy Kellman, Regional Director, Michigan Region
Anti-Defamation League
605 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10158-3560

Dear Mr. Foxman and Ms. Kellman:

Thank you for your April 3 letter regarding your concerns about the announcement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the May 2009 Michigan State University commencement speaker.

You state in your letter that the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel announced March 30 the formation of an advisory board that includes Archbishop Tutu.  As you know, MSU has been clearly and publically opposed to such a boycott.  In 2007, I joined the presidents and chancellors of more than 200 U.S. universities in decrying a movement in the United Kingdom to support a boycott against Israeli academics and academic institutions.

As I stated at that time, the great universities of the United States were built on the bedrock of academic freedom.  Michigan State University rejects the notion that free intellectual exchange and scholarly activities should be casualties of political disagreement.  Our position has not changed.

Archbishop Tutu was invited to give MSU’s commencement address last year.  He accepted our invitation, but due to limitation of his travel schedule, he had to defer his visit until this year.  We extended the invitation to Archbishop Tutu because he is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and widely regarded as one of the most esteemed elder statesmen of the world.

Also, through the invitation, we honor the longstanding relationship between Michigan State University and South Africa, as well as with Africa as a whole, where we engage in outreach, research, and study abroad in more than half the continent’s nations.  We have deep connections with Africa, and it is our hope that these connections, and the positive outcomes they support, will be the focus of Archbishop Tutu’s visit.

Clearly, at the time we extended the invitation, he was not a member of the advisory U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  Be that as it may, as firmly as we stand by our opposition to this movement, we stand by our invitation to Archbishop Tutu to address our university community.

We do so for the very same reason we reject an intellectual and academic boycott, because free speech truly is at the heart of academic freedom.  Were we to rescind our invitation to Archbishop Tutu, as you suggest, unless he publically repudiates a position he has taken, we would violate this principle we hold so dear.

In the end, as I stated in the same 2007 message in which I voiced our opposition to the boycott, MSU believes a university may best bring about positive change in the world not by building walls and holding itself apart but by engaging.  As we teach our students to tolerate and appreciate a diversity of intellectual approaches and viewpoints, even those with which they disagree, we reaffirm our commitment to being in a place in which difficult conversations lead to growth and greater understanding.

As has been our past practice with any controversial speaker, we will provide opportunities for our campus community to hear alternate points of view.  In this case, we will work with our Jewish Studies Program, MSU Hillel, and the broader Michigan Jewish community to develop these opportunities.  We would welcome your suggestions, and I encourage you to follow up with Executive Assistant to the President and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Bill Beekman.

Sincerely,

Lou Anna K. Simon, Ph.D.
President
 


Related Press Release
Archbishop Desmond Tutu 'Poor Choice' for Commencement Ceremonies (4/6/09)
 
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