Duke University’s Slow Response to Death Threats Raises Questions

A barrage of hate mail, physical confrontations and death threats at Duke University has prompted suprisingly little reaction from a school that prides itself on tolerence and diversity. The trouble began when two freshmen, Berin Szoka and Jay Strader, submitted a series of op-editorials to The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, protesting the creation of a Hindi major at Duke.

Strader and Szoka cited the lack of interest in Hindi courses at Duke and the superiority of Western civilization and culture over “the values of a primitive and impoverished country like India” as reasons not to create a Hindi major at Duke. “Those who truly wish to enjoy the “richness of Indian culture would do better to learn English than Hindi,” said Szoka, because India owes its success to “the legacy of British colonialism.”

Those controversial comments prompted physical confrontations and death threats on the lives of both students from organized campus groups and individuals. “WE WILL BEAT YOU WITHIN ONE INCH OF YOUR LIFE and step on you like the little — that you are,” read one anonymous email to Szoka “…it might not be a bad idea to bring some sort of a mask or protection especially if you happen to encounter any brown-skin students [on campus], because, in my humble opinion, they have every reason to show you no love,” read another.

Szoka said that he expected strong responses to his confrontational editorial. “College is supposed to be an opportunity for intellectual growth and philosophical maturation through the free exchange of ideas,” he wrote in a subsequent editorial to The Chronicle. He said that what he did not expect, however, were physical threats. “In my freshman naivite, I failed to understand how hysterical, irrational, and violent the backlash …would be.” Strader and Szoka also did not expect the lackluster support of the university administration and campus community.

Szoka said that the only response the students have received from the university is a call from Assistant Dean Stephan Bryan about possible judicial action. The Chronicle has indicated no interest in doing a story on the death threats and did not return phone calls from the Pope Center. “Your letter wasn’t exactly mainstream,” University Life Assistant Editor Jaime Levy told Szoka and Strader. “What kind of response did you expect when you wrote that kind of letter?”

While the university has issued a press release expressing the university’s support of free speech, no one is calling the episodes hate crimes or even crimes. “We don’t know what it is,” said John Burness, Vice President of Duke University Public Relations. He said that the police were still investigating.

The University’s apparent lack of concern has prompted Szoka to discuss the case with the N.C. Foundation for Individual Rights, a group that may help the students take legal action. The campus response in this case contrasts sharply with its responses to similar incidences last April and in the Spring of 1997.

Last April, when three white men in a jeep yelled racial epithets at an Asian American student, several groups organized a forum against discrimination and The Chronicle reported it as a “hate crime.” Prism, one of the groups that helped to organize the event, proposed diversity training during orientation, a University Writing course and increased diversity in the University’s faculty, staff and administration. Also, a string of race-related incidents in May 1997, including the mistaken arrest of an undergraduate black student, led to calls for a “race day” on campus to discuss race relations. Campus Security Chief Alana Ennis immediately started an investigation of the mistaken arrest and a sensitivity training program for police.