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May 18, 1999


Hindi Controversy At Duke Continues

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Anu Manchikanti

325 words.

That's the limit on letters to the editor at the Duke Chronicle, the university's daily student newspaper. And that's all it took to put two students at the center of a impassioned controversy at the school regarding the possibility of a Hindi concentration in the Asian and African Languages and Literature department

Sophomores Jay Strader and Berin Szoka both wrote letters criticizing the proposal for a concentration in Hindi, arguing that there is not enough interest in the subject and that the university should focus on topics more useful in Western society. The letters drew an "unprecedented number" of responses, according to Katherine Stroup, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle.

Strader and Szoka personally received phone calls, unwanted visitors and e-mails from angry students, including a threatening e-mail to Szoka that warned him to not leave his room. Duke University police are now investigating the threat, which was sent from a Yahoo Mail account, and Strader and Szoka are looking to file a lawsuit against the students who came to their rooms.

It all began on April 15, when a letter to the editor from Strader was published in the Chronicle. He compared Hindi to statistics, another subject that is not a major at the university.

"Consider the relative usefulness of each subject," writes Strader, who serves as managing editor of the Duke Review, a conservative newspaper at the university. "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."

While Strader was in class that afternoon, other students allegedly broke into his room and wrote "We're going to kick your ass. -- Mother India" on his computer screen.

The letter drew many responses from other students, namely from those who disagreed with Strader. Stroup said the newspaper received many more responses than could be published on the half page set aside for letters to the editor.

Sophomore Berin Szoka, editor-in-chief of the Duke Review, wrote a letter on April 23 in defense of Strader. He argued that the values of the West are superior to those of a "primitive, impoverished country like India."

"Were it not for the British, whatever 'ancient traditions and rich culture' existed before their arrival would be enjoyed only by the very top of India's feudal case system," he wrote.

The response? More letters to the editor, unwanted visitors to Szoka's room and a barrage of criticizing e-mail including one explicit, anonymous message that warned him not to leave his room.

"You see it's pretty simple, 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*** you are," the author wrote. "Don't be surprised if between now and the end of the year, bad things start happening to you and your room."

Szoka reported the harassment to the Duke University police department. According to Major Robert Deane, the police are in the process of interviewing all parties involved. Once the interviews are complete, the department will report to the Durham County district attorney, who will decide if the charges warrant criminal prosecution. Szoka plans to file criminal charges against the students who confronted him in his room, as well as a complaint with a university judiciary.

Szoka says he asked the Chronicle to do a story regarding the controversy but was told that this was not the policy of the newspaper to cover this type of issue. Stroup, editor of the Chronicle, said the newspaper was not aware of the threats against Szoka and Strader and did not publish a story. "There is obviously a concern that if a newspaper covers a controversy that is occurring on our editorial pages and seems to rise from a story that we printed, then in many ways, the newspaper would be covering itself if it wrote a story," she said.

However, Stroup said because of the nature of the allegations made by Szoka and Strader, the newspaper is now working on a story.

At the center of this debate is the Hindi concentration within the Asian and African Languages and Literature major. Currently, Hindi is only offered as a concentration in the minor, which requires five courses, consisting of four language courses and one upper level literature or culture course.

According to Dr Miriam Cooke, director of the AALL department, the concentration within the major was proposed because there is already a sufficient number of courses taught and enough student interest. The proposal calls for "nothing other than the recognition of students taking enough classes to qualify" for a concentration, she said.

The AALL major requires ten courses, with concentrations currently offered in Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. The languages are not majors alone but part of the AALL program. Students receive degrees in AALL with concentrations in the language.

Students majoring in AALL must take six courses in their language of concentration and one upper-level cultural and literary theory course, as well as three other AALL courses. Some courses can be taken in other departments. Dr Cooke said there are currently 12 Hindi language and literature courses offered.

Moulin Desai, political chair for Diya, the South Asian Students Association, surveyed members to find out interest in the Hindi concentration. Desai says he heard requests before but wanted concrete data.

Diya surveyed only its members, though Desai said the group originally planned to talk to the whole student body. The Chronicle printed an article regarding the survey on April 6.

Desai said a proposal was sent to the curriculum committee after the article. "After the Chronicle printed the article, things just took off," he said. "We felt we already had the administration's attention, and therefore let the administration conduct its affairs without disturbance."

Dr Cooke, however, says the plan came about after she spoke with the director of the Hindi studies program about the possibility. "I had heard nothing from the students," she said.

The survey of almost 150 Diya members showed that these students would like to see the Hindi concentration, but only seven students said they would actually choose the major.

"I do believe the administration should not look at the sheer numbers of people who would major in Hindi," Desai said. "Yes, only seven people said that they would major in Hindi, but our survey can not measure the interest of incoming students. Who knows? Maybe the major will attract more South Asian students who will major in Hindi."

Many Diya members also signed a petition in support of more Sanskrit and Hinduism classes, as part of a proposal for more Indic religions and culture courses, Desai said. A varying number of South Asian studies courses are offered each semester, including those from the AALL, religion, and history departments.

Szoka argues it would take $ 3 million to create a tenured faculty position at the university, and this cost is too much for the Hindi concentration. Dr Cooke, however, said this point does not relate to the Hindi concentration.

She hopes students could start the Hindi concentration immediately after it is approved but is unsure of when a decision will be made.

Szoka says he is not specifically against the Hindi concentration. "Students at American schools ought to be studying Western civilization first," he said. "All these other programs, from Hindi studies to African Americans studies, should be marginal; they should be secondary to what's really important in a liberal arts education, which is, learning about and appreciating the values of the Western tradition."

'Is putting silicon in one's breasts better than studying the Gita?'

For more details, go to:

Duke Chronicle (

The Asian and African Languages and Literature department (

Read the controversial letter

Duke Review: (

Threats and criticism: (, including one explicit, anonymous message ( Mail).

Diya, the South Asian Students Association: (

Survey about interest in Hindi literature

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