updated 10/11/2007 2:58:11 PM ET 2007-10-11T18:58:11

A private Catholic university in Minnesota now wants Bishop Desmond Tutu to speak on campus, reversing course after its president had refused to invite the Nobel prize winner for fear his views on the Mideast conflict would insult Jews.

In a letter to students, faculty and staff, University of St. Thomas President Dennis Dease said he meant well last week when he decided not to invite Tutu to speak at an annual human rights event at the school. University officials, at the time, said Jewish community leaders had voiced concerns about what they said was the South African rights activist’s likening of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to that of Jews under Nazi Germany.

Dease said Wednesday that he did not have all the facts at that time, though he did not elaborate.

“One of the strengths of a university is the opportunity that it provides to speak freely and to be open to other points of view on a wide variety of issues. And, I might add, to change our minds,” Dease wrote in the letter, saying he was “both humbled and proud” to invite Tutu to address the college.

It was not immediately clear whether Tutu would accept the invitation. A message left with The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation in New York was not immediately returned Wednesday.

More than a week after Columbia University was in the spotlight for inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at its campus, Dease’s decision not to invite Tutu spawned debate about free speech at St. Thomas. It also led Lucille Clifton, an award-winning poet and Maryland’s poet laureate from 1979 to 1985, to cancel a Wednesday visit to the campus, a school official confirmed.

“There’s been just a huge amount of buzz on campus, especially among faculty and staff,” said David Landry, a professor of theology at St. Thomas. “We had been calling for them to reconsider. ... We’re just very pleased that the university has come to realize that it was a mistake and the only way to rectify it would be to invite Tutu to speak.”

St. Thomas officials had previously declined to invite Tutu as part of PeaceJam, a human rights event the school has hosted in the past.

Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said Wednesday that Tutu’s 2002 speech that referenced the controversial issue was a “difficult” one and, because of that, a dialogue with Tutu is even more vital. He said the JCRC will co-sponsor the St. Thomas event.

The Denver-based PeaceJam Foundation and its upper Midwest affiliate, youthrive, worked to bring Tutu to the Twin Cities.

Donna Gillen, executive director of youthrive, said the group will move ahead with scheduled plans to have Metropolitan State University host Tutu’s visit next spring — plans made after St. Thomas initially refused.

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