A letter from the federal Department of Education has sparked yet another controversy on the campuses of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This time, the issue is about how to honor the intentions of donors, with the donor being the federal government instead of a private individual or corporation.
The U.S. Department of Education’s letter expressed concern about whether the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is fulfilling the requirements of a grant provided under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The Consortium is the union of the Duke Middle East Center and the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies; the grant is for $235,000 for each of four years from 2018 to 2021.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act defines a highly specific set of grants intended “to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States by teaching American students the foreign languages and cultural competencies required to develop a pool of experts to meet our national needs.” Grants are given to university Middle East studies centers “for purposes of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs.”
And to be sure, the ED letter is not ending the grant—it merely criticizes how the Consortium has used the funds so far.
Two opposing views about the letter have emerged. One of them, held by supporters of the Consortium, is that the letter poses a new and ominous threat to academic freedom by the Trump administration.
The other is that the federal government is finally exercising proper oversight over the way academia handles its largesse.
The controversy began after Jewish groups raised objections about a Consortium-sponsored event at UNC in March entitled “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” A video of the event—which used $5,000 in Title VI money—showed a Palestinian Arab rapper using blatantly anti-Semitic lyrics.
U.S. Congressman George Holding followed up with a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calling for an investigation.
On August 29, Robert King, the assistant secretary of the ED, published a letter in the Federal Register to Terry Magnuson, the UNC vice chancellor for research, that detailed “concerns” the ED had with its Title VI grant to the Consortium. These concerns include:
- Collaborations with other academic departments did not meet a requirement to “help student in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields to achieve foreign language fluency.”
- There seems to be “a fundamental misalignment between your [the Consortium’s] choices and Title VI’s mandates.” Examples given were one conference on “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” and another on “Middle East film criticism,” along with papers on “Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History,” and “Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition.” The ED letter suggested that such topics “may be relevant in academia,” but not for “national security and economic stability.”
- Consortium activities also appeared “to lack balance,” as there were “very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East.”
- The lack of balance was present in the Consortium’s “activities for elementary and secondary school students and teachers,” in which there was “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.”
The letter also suggested the Consortium offered “very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities:”
To be clear, activities focusing on American culture or academic preferences that do not directly promote foreign language learning and advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States are not to be funded under Title VI.
Some of the specific activities criticized by the ED letter include:
- An outdoor concert by one Marco Pave, “’a Millennial Muslim’ who conducts workshops…on hip-hop and social justice.” The letter said that “it is hard to understand how these things” help to “ensure the ‘security, stability and economic vitality of the United States.’”
- A teacher-training seminar that “provided an opportunity for teachers to explore ‘issues of multicultural education and equity,’ including ‘interactive break-out sessions focused on unconscious bias, safe classrooms for all…serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture, and the media, diverse books for the classroom, and more.’”
The ED letter also criticized the job placement of Consortium graduates, only 11 percent of whom go on to work for the government, as opposed to the 35 percent who go on to positions in higher education.
Magnuson responded with a defense of the Consortium’s activities. As far as the requirement to provide foreign language to STEM majors goes, Magnuson’s response said that 28 percent of students taking language courses by the Consortium had STEM majors in 2016-2017, the most recent year with data.
Other arguments made by Magnuson against the ED letter include:
- He wrote that “the Consortium has organized, co-sponsored, facilitated, or publicized dozens of educational programs each year related to security and economic issues in the Middle East, including multiple events featuring former national security officials who had worked on Middle East issues in the Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations.”
- He further asserted that the Consortium’s programs encompass “a variety of disciplines” contributing “to a ‘full understanding’ of the Middle East, so as to produce ‘experts in and citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs’ as stipulated’” by Title VI.
- He disputed that Consortium programs lacked a “diversity of perspectives.” Furthermore, he said that the ED letter “identifies two activities that you consider to be inappropriate for Title VI funding out of the more than 100 programs that the Consortium organizes or promotes each year,” and that “neither of these activities…were supported with Title VI funding.”
- He countered the ED’s claims about its job placement record, suggesting that, since 30 percent of the Consortium’s fellowship graduates get jobs in private industry along with the 11 percent who go to work for the government, it is evident that “the Consortium actively promotes careers in government and business.”
- He said that, while there had been one teacher-training activity on multicultural education, there were many each year that “focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language.”
Given these two widely disparate positions—with the Consortium essentially rejecting the ED’s criticisms—it almost seems as if the matter comes down to one of definitions and perspectives. The academic view seems exceptionally broad, with almost anything that touches upon the Middle East, no matter how narrow or how much on the fringes, considered to satisfy the requirements laid down by the ED. And the ED, though its intent was clear for any reasonable understanding, could not express that intent and the requirements for satisfying that intent with language precise enough to stand up in a courtroom.
Without that precision, academics have traditionally found openings to use grant or donor money to do whatever they wish, even if it contradicts the intentions of the donor or grantor.
But, this time, controversy should not rest there. When further details are examined, it becomes clear that the ED is indeed exercising its proper authority.
First of all, the Magnuson letter closed by being somewhat conciliatory, agreeing to make some changes in order to continue receiving the grant. This includes matching the grant funds to actual expenditures in the annual report to the ED.
Secondly, there are in fact relatively few activities that focus on non-Muslims in the Middle East.
And there is even a certain disingenuousness or misrepresentation in the UNC response. Two Duke courses are listed differently than they actually appear in the school catalog. “Critical Introduction to Asian and Middle Eastern Studies” and “Critical Genealogies of the Middle East” are listed as “Introduction to Asian and Middle Eastern Studies” and “Genealogies of the Middle East.” The omission of the word “critical” may seem innocent, but throughout academia it has a specific meaning indicating that the course will likely be taught from a cultural Marxist perspective. And both course descriptions indeed suggest they are politicized in such a manner.The ED has every right to provide continued scrutiny of how its dollars are spent.
The question still remains whether these two extremely difficult cultures can cooperate; for that to happen, one of them must capitulate. On the surface, the Duke-UNC Consortium and Title VI may have seemed to be a natural fit; the two centers already offered courses and events of the sort favored by the ED, at least on paper.
But the match is an illusion. Title VI language presupposes a serious, apolitical, and patriotic intellectual climate. The knowledge taught by grant recipients is supposed to aid our military, security, and diplomatic forces in crafting policy, gathering strategic information, and conducting negotiations. The Consortium, on the other hand, is very far to the left of our country’s security establishment, and attitudes toward the Middle East are very much at odds with those of our national security establishment.
It is even possible that the general attitudes in the Consortium are more favorable toward the Islamic world than toward the United States. Consider the scholarship of the Consortium’s three principals:
- Consortium director Charles Kurzman, a UNC sociologist, wrote a book with an astonishing title: The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists.
- Carl Ernst, an Islamic studies professor, is director of the UNC center. He was at the middle of a controversy in 2002 when, at his urging, UNC chose Michael Sells’s Approaching the Qur’an for its freshman summer reading program. Sells’s book was soundly criticized for its apparent whitewashing of the Quran’s violent passages. He followed that by writing How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations, which also glosses over the warlike aspects of the Islamic holy book.
- Ellen McLarney, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, heads the Duke center. Her first book, Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening, is described on Duke’s website as “challenging Western conceptions of Muslim women as being oppressed by Islam.” The description on Amazon.com says the book is centered on Egyptian women who, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, “envisioned an Islamic awakening in which women’s rights and the family, equality, and emancipation were at the center.” It sounds like wishful thinking by a western feminist who fails to give Islam’s restrictive treatment of women its proper due.
Perhaps the leadership of the Duke-UNC Consortium could even be described as “apologists” for Islam. At the very least, their ideas conflict with those of our government; the government must focus on actual trends or face very real consequences, whereas academia can theorize with no such repercussions.
The question whether the ED letter is an attack on academic freedom or responsible oversight is not difficult to answer: If you take the money, you have to live up to the requirements as intended. The ED has every right to provide continued scrutiny of how its dollars are spent. In fact, it should scrutinize Title VI grant recipients even more, asking for course syllabi instead of just course titles, event programs instead of just the names, and the curricula vitae of course instructors instead of just their academic rank. Only through examining the details will the real picture of how academia subverts donor intent emerge.
Whether the ED letter heralds a new era in academia, in which donors, trustees, and government agencies start to provide actual oversight over academia, is very much an open question. There is considerable likelihood that this will all blow over and academics will once again feel free to take the money and ignore the strings attached by hiding behind a self-serving definition of academic freedom. And yet, nobody expected the ED to exercise this much authority; perhaps it is coming.
Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.