The Trump administration is threatening to cut funding for a Middle East studies program run by the University of North Carolina and Duke University, arguing that it’s misusing a federal grant to advance “ideological priorities” and unfairly promote “the positive aspects of Islam,” but not of Christianity or Judaism.
An Aug. 29 letter from the U.S. Education Department orders the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings by Sept. 22 or risk losing future funding from a federal grant that’s awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction. The consortium received $235,000 from the grant last year, according to Education Department data.
A statement from the UNC-Chapel Hill says the consortium “deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education” and is “committed to working with the department to provide more information about its programs.” Officials at Duke declined to comment. The Education Department declined to say if it’s examining similar programs at other schools.
Academic freedom advocates say the government could be setting a dangerous precedent if it injects politics into funding decisions. Some said they had never heard of the Education Department asserting control over such minute details of a program’s offerings.
This government investigation of how its money is being spent has nothing to do with academic freedom. The so-called “dangerous precedent” that the government is trying to establish is only, and justifiably, this: universities cannot do whatever they like with government money, but must do what they promised to do. That’s not hard to understand. UNC and Duke are free to teach what they want, but not on the government’s dime. When they receive government money for specific purposes, and then fail to spend it for those purposes, the government has a perfect right to ask for an accounting, and to end its financing of certain programs, if the funds have not been used as promised. It’s no different from the Cold War, when the government sponsored Russian language courses in universities. Had a university instead spent the money on courses praising the Russian Revolution, or teaching Ukrainian folk dancing, the government would have had every right to ask for that money back.
Who is injecting politics into funding decisions? Isn’t it the Duke-UNC faculty who chose to ignore their solemn commitment to use the funds for foreign language instruction and area studies, and have apparently been offering many other courses, paid for with the government funds, in which Islam, but no other religion, is shown in a positive light?
Is the government now going to judge funding programs based on the opinions of instructors or the approach of each course?” said Henry Reichman, chairman of a committee on academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors. “The odor of right-wing political correctness that comes through this definitely could have a chilling effect.”
This is hysteria from Professor Reichman. Let’s turn the question on its head: does the government have a right to examine how its money is being spent by universities, in order to ensure that it is being used on the subjects for which it was intended? Of course it does. The Higher Education Act awards funding to colleges “establishing, strengthening and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs.” What does “right-wing political correctness” have to do with making sure that money meant for foreign language training and area studies is spent on such studies, rather than on courses on Iranian cinema or Lebanese cuisine or Yemeni folk dancing?
The Department of Education “believes” that the Duke-UNC Middle Eastern studies consortium “has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI and other activities” that are “plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.”
The Dept. of Education complained that the “consortium’s records on the number of students it had enrolled in foreign language studies — a cornerstone of the federal grant program — were unclear, and that “it seems clear foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities.”
The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos ordered an investigation into the Duke-UNC program in June after North Carolina Rep. George Holding, a Republican, complained that it hosted a taxpayer-funded conference with “severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” The conference, titled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities,” included a rapper who performed a “brazenly anti-Semitic song,” Holding said in an April 15 letter .
In a response , DeVos said she was “troubled” by Holding’s letter and would take a closer look at the consortium.
The inquiry joins a broader Education Department effort to root out anti-Semitism at U.S. universities. Speaking at a summit on the topic in July, DeVos attacked a movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, calling it a “pernicious threat” on college campuses.
Last year, the department reopened an investigation at Rutgers University in which an outside group was accused of charging Jewish attendees for admission while allowing others in for free.
In the UNC-Duke case, the department’s findings did not directly address any bias against Israel but instead evaluated whether the consortium’s proposed activities met the goals of the National Resource Center program, which was created in 1965 to support language and culture initiatives that prepare students for careers in diplomacy and national security.
Investigators concluded that the consortium intended to use federal money on offerings that are “plainly unqualified for taxpayer support,” adding that foreign language and national security instruction have “taken a back seat to other priorities.” The department cited several courses, conferences and academic papers that it says have “little or no relevance” to the grant’s goals.
Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern Iran’ and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability,” the letter said.
Investigators also saw a disconnect between the grant’s mission and some academic papers by scholars at the consortium. They objected to one paper titled “Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History,” and another titled “Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition.”
The letter accused the consortium of failing to provide a “balance of perspectives” on religion. It said there is “a considerable emphasis” placed on “understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.”
It added that there are few offerings on discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, “including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze and others.” Department officials said the grant’s rules require programs to provide a “full understanding” of the regions they study.
Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC and vice president of its chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said the letter amounts to “ideologically driven harassment.” He said the Education Department official who signed the letter, Robert King, “should stay in his lane and allow the experts to determine what constitutes a ‘full understanding’ of the Middle East.”
Which “experts” does Professor Jay Smith have in mind? Omid Safi at Duke? Carl Ernst at UNC? John Esposito at Georgetown? Rashid Khalidi and Hamad Dabashi at Columbia? Middle Eastern Departments have in the last few decades been taken over entirely by Defenders of the Faith, both Muslims and non-Muslim apologists, who not surprisingly are also dedicated to the Palestinian cause and besmirching Israel. For too long, the Education Department has shown deference to these academics, who take government grant money meant for language training and area studies (history, geography, geopolitical issues), and spend it on other things. The UNC-Duke consortium’s program in teacher training instead focused on such fashionable matters as “unconscious bias, serving L.G.B.T.I.Q. youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” Investigators said the program had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history and language.”
Instead, students heard all about “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and “Middle East Film Studies” that have nothing to do with what the money was supposed to be spent on.
Is it unfair – is it an attack on academic freedom? — for the government to investigate how its money has been spent, and to demand that changes in the curriculum be made to reflect the original purpose of the grant?
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