At Birmingham-Southern College, a scheduled lecture by conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza has become the subject of controversy among students, faculty and staff.
D’Souza is slated to speak at BSC on Thursday, April 7, as part of the William M. Acker Jr. Visiting Lecture program. The announcement of his visit, made last month in the college’s weekly email newsletter, has been met with protests from some students and faculty members. A Change.org petition urging the college’s administration to “condemn” D’Souza has amassed 139 supporters as of press time, provoking a response from D’Souza and conservative news outlets such as The Blaze.
D’Souza, 54, is a nationally recognized conservative author and filmmaker whose output typically focuses on vehement criticism of the Democratic Party and liberalism, though he has also published several books of Christian apologetics. He served as a policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan between 1987 and 1988 and was president of the King’s College, a New York-based, Christian liberal arts college, from 2010 to 2012.
D’Souza received widespread attention for his 2012 documentary 2016: Obama’s America, which argued that President Barack Obama was deliberately attempting to reduce America’s global influence. July will see the release of Hillary’s America, a new film in which D’Souza proposes a centuries-long, racially based conspiracy by the Democratic Party to “steal America.” His talk on Thursday will be titled, “What’s So Great About America?” according to a press release.
“Due to Mr. D’Souza’s extensive history of controversial statements and instances of insensitivity, we believe that he will only debase the vital dialogue within our community that is necessary for learning,” the Change.org petition reads, describing D’Souza’s commentary as “hateful rhetoric” and referencing reports that D’Souza had been responsible for outing gay students while serving as editor of the Dartmouth Review.
The petition also cites D’Souza’s 2014 felony conviction for making illegal campaign contributions in the names of others— D’Souza, though he pled guilty, maintains that he was selectively prosecuted in retaliation for 2016: Obama’s America — as “reflect[ing] poorly upon Mr. D’Souza’s integrity and ethics.”
Erik Hancock, the student who created the petition, says that his intention is not to bar D’Souza from coming to BSC. “I wish that he had never been invited, but he has been,” he said. “The goal right now is to educate the campus community about who Dinesh D’Souza is, what he stands for, what his background is and why his ideas and the kind of rhetoric he engages in are so problematic. We want to make sure that when students walk into this event, they have some context. And from that point, they can decide for themselves.”
Hancock says that his motivations for protesting the event are less based on politics than they are academics. Students attending the event will be given an Explorations Lectures and Arts Events credit; to graduate, students must earn 24 such credits.
“In the past, [the Acker Lecture series] has selected Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and other great academic people,” Hancock said. “But this is a separation from that. This is a guy who has basically spent his entire career profiting off the fear and paranoia of his fellow Americans. He’s more of a pseudo-intellectual speaker than an actual, intellectual, academic conservative. We do support conservatives speaking on our campus, just not a guy like Dinesh.”
The Acker Lecture series is funded by William M. Acker Jr., a senior judge for the District Court for the Northern District of Alabama and a Birmingham-Southern alumnus. According to a college press release, the program “brings distinguished speakers to campus with a focus on the history of the American Republic.” The series was launched in 2011 and has previously featured lectures by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jack Rakove and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces Judge Margaret Ryan, among others. According to BSC Director of Communications Hannah Wolfson, D’Souza was chosen “with input from Judge Acker, our Office of Alumni Affairs, and the Office of Academic Affairs.”
Hancock says a secondary goal of the protest is to provide more student and faculty oversight on the selection of speakers “so that they meet the standards of academic rigor that we should have at this college.”
“We’re not trying to shut out his opinion or violate his constitutional rights,” Hancock continued. “He has the right to say what he wants. Whether or not BSC, a private institution, gives him a platform to express himself is an entirely different matter, in my opinion.”
“We appreciate this group of students’ engagement in this matter and believe their eagerness to participate in an open dialogue on campus shows the true value of the liberal arts education Birmingham-Southern College provides,” said BSC President Dr. Edward F. Leonard III in a statement. “We feel it’s important for our students to hear from a variety of different perspectives and are very proud to be able to provide that.”
“For me, it is an issue of protecting the integrity of our educational space,” said Andrea Vancil, another student spearheading the protest. “By providing D’Souza a platform, we are not endorsing his ideas as correct, per se, but we are endorsing his ideas as worthy of academic consideration.”
Hancock, who is president of BSC’s Debate Society (Vancil is also an officer) says that he, along with other students and faculty members, will be handing out literature at the event, as well as engaging D’Souza during the question-and-answer portion of the event. “We’ll be there asking questions and challenging him about his ideas and beliefs,” he said. “We want a rigorous debate and dialogue with him.”
As of press time, D’Souza had not responded to requests for comment, though he did respond to the petition on his Twitter feed. “I notice conservatives never try to ban liberal speakers on campus,” he wrote on Saturday. “We must be the tolerant ones.”
“SUGGESTION BOX:” he wrote the following day. “Perhaps Birmingham Southern U [sic] should set up booths & provide counseling to leftist students traumatized by my talk there.”
When a Twitter user suggested that students might be “freaked out by the presence of a convicted criminal” on campus, D’Souza replied, “Oh I am so likely to rob and rape them, the poor dears.” An hour later he added, “I hope Birmingham Southern U students are brave enough to come hear me and make up their own minds.”
Updated 4/4/16 at 3:47 p.m. to include a statement from BSC President Ed Leonard and to provide clarification on the selection process for Acker Lectures.