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Letters to the editor prompt debate, threats

The news that students were pushing for a Hindi major at the University sparked a major campus debate during the final few weeks of the semester; while some members of the Duke community argued vehemently that a major would fill an intellectual void on campus, others claimed that there simply is no demand for additional Hindi classes.

But the letters of two University students-rising Trinity sophomores Jay Strader and Berin Szoka-fueled the flames of controversy into a raging inferno. While echoing the sentiments of those who found a Hindi major excessive, the letters also suggested that India is an impoverished Third World country unworthy of intellectual exploration. The response to these letters was intense and immediate; Strader and Szoka said they have both received threatening e-mails and have even been personally confronted by fellow students.

Strader said the first incident occurred just hours after his letter was printed in the April 15 issue of The Chronicle. His letter argued that there is no demand for a Hindi major and that the administration should focus its resources on programs, like statistics, that students really want. In addition, he wrote, "the former is a language spoken in a Third World country overwrought by disease and poverty, while the latter is a science of proven, inestimable value in all branches of industry and science."

When Strader returned to his dorm room that afternoon, he said a message that read, "We're going to kick your ass-Mother India" had been left on his computer screen.

"I was somewhat shocked, but since the fiasco had just started, I didn't seriously worry about it at the time," Strader said. "That changed as the hate e-mail and threats directed towards me became more voluminous and serious."

Also in response to Strader's letter, a group of concerned South Asian students gathered that evening to discuss their feelings on the situation. A press release issued by Strader and Szoka during the week of May 2 labels this "an emergency meeting to plot a response to the 'crisis'...." It continued, "The group... posted a message on four Internet newsgroups asking readers to deluge Strader with hate mail."

According to former Diya President Yogin Patel, Trinity '99, the meeting was an informal, unofficial gathering of several friends, many of whom also happened to be Diya members. "What I took was that everybody was going to write their own letters and fight it in their own ways," he said.

On campus, the debate immediately moved from a policy discussion about the addition of a major to a discussion of the merits or shortcomings of Indian civilization and values. Letters to the editor-most arguing against Strader's position-began to flood the editorial page of The Chronicle. But April 23 brought a letter forcefully defending the anti-Hindi major stance from Szoka, Strader's friend and Duke Review co-worker.

"The attacks on Jay claimed that they really didn't need to address the argument because it was racist, and they argued it was racist if Duke doesn't have a Hindi program," Szoka said, "but they had not addressed Jay's position that there was no demand for the major."

Szoka's letter also said, "The values of the West-the power of reason, the sanctity of individual rights and the unfettered pursuit of happiness-are superior to the values of a primitive, impoverished country like India."

By 7 p.m. that evening, Szoka said three students visited his room, "saying 'f--k you... why didn't you say this to my face... why don't you come out here....'"

Trinity sophomore Amit Patel confirmed that he was one of the three students, but could not be reached for further comment. Szoka identified one other student as a confronter, but that student did not respond to phone or e-mail messages. Strader said Patel also threatened him.

Szoka and Strader also began receiving personal e-mails from students enraged by their arguments. Among them was an anonymous e-mail to Szoka that threatened "if we ever see you out of your room around East, we will beat you within one inch of your life and step on you like the little s--t that you are.... We will find you, and when we do, you could only wish that you had never learned to write...."

Szoka said Campus Police discovered that the message was sent from the computer cluster in Brown Dormitory, but have not yet identified the sender.

Capt. Charles Nordan of the Duke University Police Department said the investigation is ongoing.

Trinity senior Douglas Brown was one of the students who wrote to Szoka, although his e-mail was far less threatening.

Brown said he wrote the letter because he "was shocked initially that someone would actually publish a letter presumably insensitive and myopic as Szoka's...," he said. "My intent was certainly not to scare Szoka with threats of physical violence or other personal harm. In fact, I set out while writing the e-mail specifically to not threaten him."

On April 28, Szoka countered these rebuttals with another letter to the editor. And many others have followed, from places as far away as North Hollywood, Calif.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Edison, N.J.; and Kattayi, India, according to The Chronicle's Editorial Page Editor Norm Bradley, an engineering junior.

The leadership of the India Abroad Center for Political Awareness encouraged its listserv's members to write to The Chronicle in support of Indian culture as a legitimate area of study, and The Boston Globe's conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote a May 3 column on the subject. Several other major national newspapers have published news articles about the incidents.

For now, Szoka and Strader are trying to force the University to punish the students who threatened them. As a rallying cry for this effort, Szoka and Strader have referred repeatedly to President Nan Keohane's seemingly dismissive comment that the threats were "just a scary way of blowing off steam.'"

But Keohane said Strader took her quotes out of context. "I told him that we are taking [the threats] very seriously, that the policy and student affairs are involved in close investigations...," Keohane said. "Then, thinking that perhaps he was concerned about his own safety, personally, I tried to reassure him by saying that I thought it was probably 'just a scary way of blowing off steam.' This was intended to make him feel better if he was scared... but clearly my effort to reach out to him personally as a threatened student backfired."

Kacie Wallace, associate dean for judicial affairs, said she and her co-workers will spend the summer investigating the incidents and their relations to each other, the judicial code and the harassment policy. Her office will be prepared to take action, if deemed necessary, when the students-including Szoka and Strader, the threateners and the Undergraduate Judicial Board members-return in the fall.

Jaime Levy and Katherine Stroup contributed to this story.