Wherever Dinesh D’Souza speaks, he encounters student boycotts and impassioned attacks from his audience. He goes home to menacing messages on his answering machine warning him “you can expect trouble.”
Near the center of a lingering debate over controversial changes in Stanford University’s freshman curriculum, D’Souza seems ready, even eager for trouble.
He is one of the most vocal critics of what he considers academia’s sacred cows: affirmative action, diversity and multiculturalism. And the university’s new courses, which are intended to bring cultural balance to the curriculum, have not escaped his wrath.
In the spotlight of a Stanford lecture hall last week, D’Souza seemed on his guard, his hands buried deep in his pockets, nervously shifting back and forth as if dodging invisible projectiles hurled by angry listeners.
They never came. Instead, many faculty and students praised the young scholar for re-kindling a debate over their university’s undergraduate curriculum and for placing himself dangerously close to the center of the discussion.
A small group of the curriculum’s vanguards who vehemently disagreed with D’Souza settled for hurtling criticism at him after the presentation.
“This guy makes the history of the Soviet Union as written by Stalin look objective,” said Jonathan Reider, a Stanford instructor who teaches classes in the disputed curriculum. “He’s turned the facts about what’s really happened here upside-down.”
At issue is the 1988 decision to replace a Western civilization prerequisite with “cultures, ideas and values"--a series of classes in which non-Western and contemporary authors have been added to reading lists. Debate over the so-called “CIV” program--proponents say it promotes diversity, while critics claim it lowers academic standards and dilutes the curriculum with inferior works--cooled down after the changes were implemented. Now it is heating up--largely because of D’Souza.
“Of the 12 books my daughter has read for her class, nine have gone in the garbage can,” said a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution whose daughter is a freshman.
The debate is, in the words of one professor, “a struggle for the intellectual soul of Stanford.” On one side, campus activists insist the changes are urgently needed to sensitize students. But supporters of the Western civilization requirement say the alterations reflect a politicization of higher education.
Add to that equation D’Souza: a graduate of Dartmouth College, a founding editor of the conservative student newspaper, the Dartmouth Review, and a research fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, a conservative public policy think tank. He is touring a dozen universities to promote his book “Illiberal Education,” a scathing critique of affirmative action and multiculturalism.
As a native of Bombay, India, who came to the United States in 1978 as a high school exchange student, D’Souza claims to enjoy a kind of ethnic immunity to charges he is racially insensitive.
“If I were white,” he concedes, “I couldn’t get away with the things that I say.”
And his claims that Stanford is favoring politically charged, inferior works for its freshman CIV classes has put activists who backed the curriculum changes in a defensive posture, he says.
Fearing reprisal for being politically “incorrect,” some faculty members contend that a silent majority of teachers has remained mute over the changes, wary of joining outsiders in criticizing the university. They say that lecturers like D’Souza will help break the silence.
“Political correctness has angered a tremendous part of the faculty,” said Gerald Gillespie, a professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature and a critic of CIV.
But D’Souza’s detractors, who attack his research as shoddy and claim he is interested only in selling books, say there has been plenty of open discussion.
Instructor Barry Katz, who denounced “Illiberal Education” as a poorly researched moneymaking endeavor, said if he had the opportunity to debate D’Souza, “I could have shredded his book.” He defended Stanford’s curriculum as a necessary change that allows flexibility in educating students.