No doubt that the Middle East plays a significant role in American foreign policy. Shaping it requires a cadre of people educated in the arcane aspects of the region. The Middle East Studies have been created for this purpose and supported by the federal government, but over the years activist-scholars from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) have been distorting the goal of providing objective knowledge.
Recently, the US Education Department has alerted two universities, Duke and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that the Duke-U.N.C. Consortium for Middle East Studies program (CMES) which is supported with Title VI funds, is unauthorized and may not qualify as an eligible National Resource Center to receive the grants.
According to the Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the "Congress authorizes grants to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States" by teaching foreign languages and cultures to American students, required to develop a pool of experts "to meet our national needs." Title VI grants are made to institutions of higher education or consortia, for comprehensive foreign language and international studies centers and programs. Federal funding is conditioned that the given center or program is a "National Resource" for foreign language, providing a full understanding of areas, regions, or countries for research and training in world affairs. "It is unlawful for institutions of higher education to use Title VI funds differently."
The US Education Department raised a number of concerns regarding Duke-UNC Consortium program: First, that of over 6 thousand students enrolled in the program only 960 took foreign language courses. Second, there are collaborations with academic departments that are not aligned with the requirements of the National Resource Centers and are not eligible for the grants. Third, many of the topics taught have little or no relevance to Title VI, for example, Iranian art and film, “Love and Desire in Modem Iran;” "Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History"; or, "Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition." These should not be funded or subsidized by the American taxpayers under Title VI unless demonstrated they are helping American students to become fluent in Middle Eastern languages. Forth, the program appears to be lacking balance and doesn't include, for example, historic discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others. There is a clear effort to present the positive aspects of Islam, such as an outdoor concert series "Islam, music, and social change," but no effort to present the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or other religions in the Middle East. Fifth, the program offers very little attention to "understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs." Instead, it emphasizes "advancing ideological priorities," such as presenting "dominant American frameworks," or American "aggressively capitalist environment.”
The debate over the abuse of Title VI is not new, IAM reported in February 2018 of a coalition of American Jewish educational groups which has written in request of amendments to Title VI. The groups’ concern was that federal funds "are being misused to promote biased, one-sided, and anti-Israel programming in our nation’s Middle East studies centers" as many recipients of Title VI funds "provide only a monochromatic –and biased, anti-American, and anti-Israel—perspective."
This bias was discussed also in 2016, in an article in the Weekly Standard, contemplating how "US Taxpayer Dollars Contribute to BDS Activity and Anti-Semitism on Campuses.” In 2014, the journal Inside Higher Education noted that a "coalition of Israel advocacy organizations concerned by what they describe as the prevalence of anti-Israel programming at federally-funded Middle East studies centers.”
As mentioned earlier, such trends have been promoted by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a hotbed of anti-Israeli activity. Unsurprisingly, MESA is also a bastion of academics like John Esposito who have been accused of whitewashing Islam.
In 2001, Martin Kramer, a Middle East expert, made the most comprehensive study on bias in the Middle East studies programs in his widely discussed book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Kramer postulated that "It is no exaggeration to say that America’s academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades. Time and again, academics have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events. Repeated failures have depleted the credibility of scholarship among influential publics". Kramer requested to "probe how and why a branch of academe once regarded with esteem has descended to such a low point in the public estimate, and what might be done about it." Kramer urged amendments to Title VI funding, "Changes in Title VI can help erode the culture of irrelevance that has pervaded Middle Eastern studies. But no amount of tweaking this program can cure the more fundamental ailments that afflict the field. This healing can only be achieved by the guild: the physicians must heal themselves." For Kramer, Middle East studies "lack a culture of tolerance for diversity in ideas and approaches." He suggested, "it can be solved only by a deliberate effort to open Middle Eastern studies to debate."
As for the current crisis of the Duke-UNC Consortium, the latest report states that despite the concerns from the U.S. Department of Education over uses of Title VI grants, it received funding for the 2019-20 academic year. Still, it looks as if the Title VI grants for Middle East studies will be under a magnifying glass from now on.
This step has an effect on Israeli academia as well. For two decades, Israeli academics willing to bash Israel were recruited to teach and research by MESA scholars who abuse the Title VI grants, something IAM reported in length.
Criticism of Israel is, of course, a legitimate issue, but it needs to be balanced with criticism of the Arab world and Islam, something MESA members have prevented for too long.
Duke-UNC Consortium received '19-20 funding from the Education Department amid controversy
By Stefanie Pousoulides
September 30, 2019 | 9:19am IDT
Despite concerns from the U.S. Department of Education over its use of Title VI funds, the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) still received funding for the 2019-20 academic year, according to emails obtained by The Chronicle.
In order to continue receiving Title VI funding, the Department of Education required that the CMES send it an activity schedule for the upcoming year to show how its activities encourage foreign language learning and further the “national security interests and economic stability of the United States,” according to a letter from the Department published in the Federal Register. The plan was to be submitted by Sept. 22, so that the Department could provide the funds for the CMES by Sept. 30.
According to a public records request by The Chronicle, Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, replied to the Department of Education’s letter Sept. 20. Angela Morabito, press secretary for the Department of Education, wrote in a Sept. 25 email to The Chronicle that the Department had gotten a response back from the CMES and was in the process or reviewing it.
The same day as Magnuson’s letter, Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, was informed that the CMES had received a grant for the 2019-20 academic year, according to an email he sent Sept. 23 obtained by The Chronicle.
In his Sept. 23 email, Zanalda wrote that “at this point all your centers/consortia have received notification of Continuation Awards for 2019-20,” addressing the email to the directors of the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Center for Slavic Eurasian and East European Studies and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center.
“This is just to let you know that the Director of the Duke-UNC CMES (based at UNC) informed us last Friday that ‘a continuation award has been made’ for the consortium’s NRC [national resource center] grant – in other words the GAN [grant adjustment notice] for 2019-20 has been posted in G5 [the Department of Education’s grant management system],” Zanalda wrote.
He wrote in an email to The Chronicle that UNC would have “the specifics of the grant,” as the Consortium is “managed by UNC, which also administers the Title VI Area Studies grant from the Department of Education.”
Another email obtained by The Chronicle confirmed that the 2019-20 funding was dispersed to the CMES. Eve Duffy, associate vice provost for global affairs, wrote in an email to Title VI center directors at Duke on Sept. 24 that the Consortium had gotten funded for 2019-20.
“By now you may have heard of the DOE letter regarding the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies,” Duffy wrote. “UNC responded to the request last week. That letter is now public as part of a public records request made by the News and Observer. Please share the letter with your faculty who may have concerns about the letter from the DOE.”
Duffy did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
After The Chronicle contacted UNC affiliates—Carl Ernst, UNC campus director of the Consortium, Director of the Consortium Charles Kurzman and Magnuson—for comment to this article, UNC media relations attached “the [Sept. 20] letter UNC-Chapel Hill sent” in a Sept. 24 email to The Chronicle.
The Department of Education did not respond to requests to comment on the status of the Consortium’s funding for this year. UNC media relations declined to comment on the Department’s dispersal of funds.
Duke and UNC respond
Magnuson formally responded to the Department of Education’s letter Sept. 20.
“The Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program,” Magnuson wrote. “In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about our programs.”
Absent from the letter, however, are changes to the Consortium’s curriculum or programming.
“Your letter identifies two activities that you consider to be inappropriate for Title VI funding, out of more than 100 programs that the Consortium organizes or promotes each year,” Magnuson wrote. “Neither of these activities, as it happens, were supported with Title VI funding.”
To the Department’s complaint that the CMES emphasizes the “positive aspects of Islam” without a similar appreciation for other religions, Magnuson countered that “positive appreciation for Christianity, Judaism and other religions of the Middle East suffuses all of the Consortium’s K-12 outreach activities.”
Magnuson also disputed the Department’s criticism of the CMES’ language teaching, noting that Duke ranks highly nationally across several languages. In addition to having the highest Urdu language course enrollment in the United States, the CMES ranks 8th in both Arabic and Turkish.
Magnuson pointed to “dozens of educational programs each year related to security and economic issues in the Middle East,” related to the allegation that the Consortium does not sufficiently advance national security interests. He listed several events planned for Fall 2019 that directly address national security.
Ellen McLarney, Duke campus director of the Consortium and associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, also addressed the Department of Education’s criticism about non-regular rank faculty teaching language courses.
“[The letter] said that these courses are not being taught by regular rank faculty, which means tenure track teachers, but the policy across universities in the United States generally is that language courses are usually not taught by tenure track faculty,” McLarney said.
She also noted that many of those classes are taught by instructors with graduate and doctoral degrees. Specifically, she mentioned that faculty with doctorates teach Persian, Turkish and Arabic.
President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth wrote an email to Duke faculty Thursday reaffirming Duke’s commitment to academic freedom.
The letter affirmed that the University would “abide by the applicable legal guidelines” for federal grants, though it did not specifically address the concerns laid out by the Department of Education. The message also noted that UNC’s formal response to the Department of Education speaks on behalf of Duke as well.
A student involved in the CMES disputed the Department of Education’s characterization of the program. Junior Omar Benallal has taken multiple Arabic classes, including those at the graduate level.
“I am very involved in the AMES department and in the classes that are a part of the Consortium of Middle East Studies,” Benallal said.
He currently serves as a teaching assistant for intermediate and advanced Arabic classes and has been involved with course administration and teaching in aspects of Middle East studies and Arabic language instruction.
“The letter struck a chord with me by taking classes and by being able to have open discussion on topics as facilitated by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies,” Benallal said. “At least I saw a stark difference in what I experienced in what the Department of Education was purporting.”
What the CMES does with its funds
The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is a language and Middle East studies center funded by Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and jointly run by Duke and UNC.
While the CMES program has various funding sources, it is partially backed by Title VI funds that support universities which operate international studies and foreign language programs.
“CMES is a Duke-UNC Center created by Title VI funds. Duke’s Middle East Studies Center and UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies have other streams of funding as well mainly from the University,” McLarney wrote in an email. “Both Centers also operate separately but together through CMES.”
The CMES is a national resource center (NRC), a Higher Education Act term for programs that serve four purposes: teaching foreign languages, providing additional instruction necessary for comprehensive understanding of the places where taught languages are spoken, reviewing international studies and how they relate to foreign languages and educating on global issues.
Department of Education online files list the four-year Title VI grants for national resource centers by world area. According to those listed for fiscal years 2018 to 2021, the center affiliated with Duke and UNC within the region of the Middle East would receive $235,000 in NRC funding per year. Another center also affiliated with Duke and UNC but within the region of Latin America is denoted to receive $224,000 in NRC funding and $372,000 in Foreign Language and Area Studies funding.
According to a Duke website, Erdag Göknar, associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle East studies and former Duke campus director of the Consortium, and McLarney were the principal investigators for the August 15, 2018 to August 14, 2019 Title VI NRC grant. Göknar was the principal investigator for the August 15, 2014 to August 14, 2018 grant.
Göknar did not respond to multiple requests to comment from The Chronicle.
McLarney, who is also the director of Duke’s Middle East Studies Center and interim director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said the Consortium’s “main mission is educating students in the language, culture and politics of the region,” and faculty in the Consortium can pursue that aim through scholarship and teaching.
Title VI funding allows the Consortium to “develop those programs partially, the language program, all the conferences, like talks,” she said. She believes Magnuson’s letter demonstrates how the Consortium is “very pluralistic in ideology and politics in terms of our programming,” and that it “really [seeks] to promote dialogue across ideological lines as a way to model resolution partially through dialogue.”
Students involved in the CMES can take interdisciplinary courses at both Duke and UNC. The courses are cross-listed in various departments and programs, including Jewish studies, political science, public policy, history, anthropology and religious studies, McLarney added.
The CMES also offers a certificate for graduate students. McLarney explained that those pursuing the certificate alternate between attending classes at UNC and Duke each week because the courses are co-taught by a faculty member at each institution.
When it comes to future conferences, an annual graduate student conference is already in the works.
On Sept. 25, the Islamicate Graduate Student Association at UNC announced on Facebook that its “17th Annual Duke-UNC Conference” will be held Feb. 29, 2020 in Chapel Hill. The conference is entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?: Approaches to Authority within the Academy and Beyond.”
“In light of recent attempts at intimidation by the state, we are particularly interested in thinking through the politics of power,” the post reads. “As such, we are seeking papers that interrogate questions of authority and power.”
The Consortium lists 16 past Islamic studies annual conferences hosted by Duke and UNC graduate students. Past graduate conferences are listed in the Consortium’s archived events page and are listed as sponsored by the Consortium.
An ‘unprecedented’ letter
The Consortium made national headlines earlier this year when it held a conference entitled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” that was alleged to have included anti-Semitic content. Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate misuse of Title VI grant funding in April 2019.
According to The News & Observer, the Consortium’s four-year Title VI grant provided $5,000 in funding for the event, though UNC said that it used less than $200 of the allocated money. DeVos launched an investigation into the CMES, according to a June 18, 2019 letter from DeVos to Holding, obtained by The News & Observer.
At the time of the conference, Göknar was Duke campus director of the Consortium. When his tenure ended on July 1, 2019, McLarney assumed the position as director, she told The Chronicle.
In the Aug. 29 letter to the CMES, Robert King, assistant secretary of the Department of Education, wrote that most of the CMES’ activities that received Title VI funding were unauthorized, and that it was possible that the Consortium would no longer be an “eligible national resource center.”
He then outlined concerns regarding various aspects of the Consortium’s courses and programming. These included the involvement of STEM students obtaining “foreign language fluency;” not enough programs on “religious minorities in the Middle East;” grade school activities on the “positive aspects of Islam” but not the same for other Middle East religions; a lack of “emphasis” on the “geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs;” and other issues with Title VI compliance, he explained.
“The Department believes the Duke-UNC CMES has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI, and other activities, perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support,” King wrote.
This type of letter is “unprecedented,” according to McLarney.
“No one has seen something like this in this field,” McLarney said. “Nor has this kind of letter been put on the Federal Register, which is basically making it public.”
Omid Safi, Trinity ‘92, Graduate School ‘00 and professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he would refer to a Sept. 25 letter to the Department of Education from the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America expressing concern over the Department’s action.
The letter, co-signed by 19 other academic professional organizations, asserts that the Department of Education’s action “constitutes an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.”
The letter also argues that “tying funding to considerations that have little to do with developing and supporting area studies of the highest quality, will undermine the mission of Title VI.”
The ACLU also wrote a letter demanding DeVos cease her investigation into the Consortium. In its letter, the ACLU mentions “the Trump administration is threatening to pull federal funding” from the Consortium and alleges that the administration has a “deep-seated anti-Muslim bias.”
Jeremy Tang contributed reporting.
How the Trump regime is cracking down on US academic freedom
4 October 2019 22:31 UTC
The Department of Education has threatened the future of an academic consortium over its emphasis on 'the positive aspects of Islam'
Protestors rally against US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in New York on 1 May (AFP)
This past March, the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies organised a conference, titled “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities”, bringing together experts from Palestine and the US to discuss such timely topics as Gaza’s economy, health conditions, humanitarian aid and more. The conference also highlighted Gaza’s culture: its film productions, music and food.
The consortium has been hosting such annual conferences for years, with topics ranging from “ReOrienting the Veil” to “Arts of Revolution in the Middle East” to the Arab Spring. Yet, complaints that this year’s conference was “antisemitic” quickly found their way to the office of North Carolina Republican Representative George Holding, who took it further with a letter to the US Department of Education, complaining that taxpayer funds were being misused to advance antisemitism.
"Honest academic debate featuring diverse perspectives and a wide range of views is critical in a democratic society and a central tenet of America’s educational system," Holding wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy camouflaged as academic discourse."
The Department of Education determined that the complaint warranted an investigation, which it opened shortly afterwards. Last month, it informed the consortium that it found the conference problematic in many ways, including that it emphasised "the positive aspects of Islam".
In its letter to the consortium, the department wrote that as a condition for future Title VI funding, it must “provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.More seriously, the Department of Education investigated the consortium’s record over many years, and threatened to withhold funding if its programmes failed to “advance the national security interests” of the US.
“For example, cultural studies providing historical information about customs and practices in the Middle East and assisting students to understand and navigate the culture of another country, in concert with rigorous foreign language training, could help develop a pool of experts needed to protect U.S. national security and economic stability and therefore may well be within Title VI’s ambit,” the letter noted.
“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.”
This letter is deeply troubling, and academics and civil rights advocates have been quick to point out that it is reminiscent of the McCarthyist attacks on leftist academics at the height of the Cold War, with the witch hunt now targeting scholarship on Palestine and Islam generally.
Additionally, it reveals that the Department of Education itself, rather than the consortium, is determined to impose its own ideological bias onto academic programmes. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in a statement: “Title VI does not, and cannot, authorize the government to require federal funding recipients to de-emphasize the ‘positive aspects of Islam’ to the Department’s satisfaction.
"The Department’s assumption of such authority threatens core constitutional principles protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”
Concerned students at the UNC-Duke consortium published a response to DeVos’ letter, noting: “This is the first time in a decade that the state has intervened to make an academic department more amenable to its politics. Title VI extortions in the mid-2000s attempted to force Middle East Studies programs to churn out tools for the state through programs that focused on linguistic skills, security frameworks, and hostility to the Middle East and Muslims during the War on Iraq.
“These jingoistic, white supremacist currents are even stronger today, emboldening the Trump administration to crack down on freedom of speech, and our commitment to complex, nuanced educational programming.”
Concerted national attack
Students and academics have also noted that the official criticism of the conference continues a decades-long concerted national attack on all teaching about Palestine, led by another Trump nominee, Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education.
Marcus is often referred to as an “anti-BDS crusader” who is “in effect weaponizing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in federal fund-assisted organizations, i.e. universities”. In an earlier, co-authored article, I wrote that like other Trump appointees, “Marcus seeks to undermine the very rights he is charged with protecting”.
In addition to ongoing concerns over shutting down critical debate on Palestine, there is growing national alarm about the weaponising of Title VI, which was intended to protect civil rights.
Many educational experts are pointing out that federal law states clearly that Title VI should not be construed “to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction”.
In other words, the government cannot dictate the content of any department’s courses. This, however, is exactly what US President Donald Trump’s appointees are doing, and it is a threat to all of academia.
With the Department of Education determining that federal funding can be withdrawn from academic departments that do not further “national security”, and with this administration’s open Islamophobia and its concerted attacks on hard-won civil rights for the majority of Americans, the fear is that programmes that denounce homophobia, ableism in the medical profession, or law enforcement violence against African Americans - to name but a few - will also be starved of funding, so that only those schools that “please” this white supremacist administration can thrive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Nada Elia is a Diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, currently working on her second book, Who You Callin' "Demographic Threat?" Notes from the Global Intifada. A professor of Gender and Global Studies (retired), and is a member of the Steering Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)
Middle East Studies Program Comes Under Federal Scrutiny
Education Department inquiry into Middle East studies program jointly operated by Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill raises academic freedom concerns.
By Elizabeth Redden September 25, 2019
An inquiry by the U.S. Department of Education into the curricular programming of a Middle East studies center supported by federal funds has raised alarm bells in academe.
Henry Reichman, the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, described the department’s inquiry into the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ use of federal Title VI funds as “a chillingly inappropriate political intrusion into curricular decisions best made by faculty.”
The Education Department wrote to the center jointly run by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 29. The letter, published in the Federal Register last week, singled out various programs as allegedly having “little or no relevance to Title VI,” a federal grant program that funds international studies and foreign language programs at U.S. universities. The Duke-UNC consortium is designated as a National Resource Center for the teaching of Middle East studies and languages of the region; it receives about $235,000 in annual Title VI funding.
Among the programs singled out for criticism by the Education Department were two humanities conferences. “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 from Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King states.
King alleges “a lack of balance” in the Duke-UNC consortium’s programming and suggests that Islam is treated favorably compared to religious minority groups in the Middle East, including Christianity and Judaism. The letter accuses the center of “advancing ideological priorities” and singles out a teacher-training program in multicultural education in arguing that it uses such programs to “advance narrow, particularized views of American social issues” rather than focusing on language development or the geography, geopolitical issues or history of the Middle East.
The letter also criticizes the Duke-UNC center for placing more graduates in academe than in government and faults the Duke-UNC program for teaching structure that leaves most of the foreign language teaching to non-tenure-track faculty -- a common, albeit oft-lamented, structure within higher education.
Over all, the letter asserts that “foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities at Duke-UNC CMES.” To remain eligible for future funding, the department directed the university to “provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.”
The statute authorizing the Title VI international education programs identifies such goals as "producing increased numbers of trained personnel and research in foreign languages, area studies, and other international studies" and "to develop a pool of international experts to meet national needs." To the degree it references national security and economic interests, the law frames these concepts broadly: "The security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States in a complex global era depend upon American experts in and citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs, as well as upon a strong research base in these areas."
UNC’s vice chancellor for research, Terry Magnuson, has written back to the Education Department defending the consortium’s programs and pledging to create a new advisory board to review its proposed activities.
Magnuson writes that the consortium has the highest Urdu language enrollments in the country and the eighth-highest enrollments in Arabic and Turkish. He defends the consortium’s cultural and historical programs as providing “essential preparation for work in areas of national need,” and also highlights various programs focused directly on national security concerns, such as an event on combating violent extremism and a program on the U.S.-Israeli partnership in cybersecurity. The letter also states that two of the specific programs singled out by the Education Department for “advancing ideological priorities” were not in fact supported with Title VI funds.
"The consortium’s activities ‘reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs,’ in compliance with" statutory requirements, Magnuson wrote. "The consortium organizes public events presenting diverse perspectives and a wide range of views on many of the Middle East’s most challenging subjects, including -- in recent years -- conferences on censorship in Turkey, Islam and religious identity, World War I and the transformation of the Middle East, the aftermath of the Arab Spring; and lectures on human rights in Iran, civil war in Syria, repression in Egypt, and many other subjects.”
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) joined with 17 other scholarly associations, including the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, in writing a letter expressing "considerable concern and surprise" regarding the department's intervention at UNC/Duke. "Your
letter, in tone and content, suggests an intention not only to significantly narrow the scope of Title VI activities, but also to micromanage them," the groups wrote in the joint letter to Assistant Secretary King, which is being sent today.
They wrote that King's letter "appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how expertise in foreign languages, cultural competencies, and area and international knowledge in general is obtained. The letter also constitutes an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education."
While the department’s letter may be unprecedented, allegations of bias in Middle East studies centers are not new -- particularly as they relate to programming about Israel. The inquiry into the Duke-UNC consortium’s use of Title VI funding appears to have been launched in response to a complaint from a congressman about alleged anti-Semitic rhetoric at a conference about Gaza supported by the consortium. UNC estimated less than $200 in Title VI grant funds were allocated for the Gaza-related event, The News and Observer of Raleigh reported.
“This is old hat,” said Joel Beinin, the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History Emeritus at Stanford University and a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, from 2001 to 2002. In 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have created an advisory board to oversee Title VI-funded programs, but the bill was never taken up by the Senate.
“In the administration of George W. Bush and the aftermath of Sept. 11, people who were not familiar much with the Middle East or Islam deplored the kinds of explanations that many experts on modern Middle East or modern Islam gave on what it was about,” Beinin said. “It was essentially the same thing. Title VI Middle East centers in general [were characterized as] too pro-Arab, too pro-Muslim, too critical of Israel, not supportive enough of basically the national agenda of the Bush administration, although it wasn’t put in those terms.”
More recently, in 2014, a coalition of pro-Israel organizations called for reducing or eliminating federal funding for Middle East studies centers unless alleged biases in their programming were corrected.
“The evidence shows that many centers funded under Title VI still do not serve the basic objectives of the program, namely, to advance American national security and international relations interests,” the groups said. “They too often exclude scholars with diverse perspectives while stifling discourse on critical issues. The biased learning environment that results suppresses the academic freedom of students and faculty with different views. At some institutions, students are afraid to disagree with their professors.”
One of the organizations involved in that statement was the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which at the time was headed by Kenneth L. Marcus, now the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department. Marcus wrote in a 2014 op-ed in The Hill that Title VI funds were “being used to support biased and academically worthless programming on college campuses. And the Department of Education is failing to hold these programs accountable for their violations.”
The Department of Education did not respond to inquiries about the investigation into the use of Title VI funding at Duke-UNC and whether Marcus has been involved in the inquiry.
Some have supported the inquiry as overdue.
“Recipients of Title VI taxpayer funds for NRCs must demonstrate viewpoint diversity on the region & how the programming advances foreign language training & [US] #NatSec & economic interests. Monitoring compliance is long overdue!” Miriam F. Elman, president of the Academic Engagement Network, a group of faculty who oppose the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, and an associate professor of political science at Syracuse University, said on Twitter.
Others have more mixed views. "I worry that this letter may be politically motivated," said R. Kirk Belnap, a professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University. "Too narrow of a definition for courses that 'advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States' would not to be in the nation’s best interest. But we must address the dangerous trend that has resulted in most language faculty being second-class citizens in the academy. This is a battle that Title VI should fight, one clearly in the nation’s interest."
Christopher S. Rose, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Historical Studies who previously spent 15 years helping to administer a Title VI program, said that the Department of Education has every right to monitor compliance and to ask for clarification as to how specific programs meet the grant’s objectives. But he questioned the public nature of the exchange, and what he characterized as the at times derisive or sarcastic tone of the department’s letter -- which, he said, suggested judgment had already been passed. Rose blogged about the inquiry on his website.
“The thing that struck me the most about the way this has all shaken out is, No. 1, the public nature of the criticism and, No. 2, as I raised in the blog, the public criticism includes criticism of Duke-UNC of doing things that are actually perfectly acceptable under the program regulations,” Rose said. “The grant regulations themselves specify that, for example, it is a perfectly acceptable outcome for graduates of a [National Resource Center] program that receive federal funding to go into higher education; yet the letter criticizes Duke-UNC for not placing enough graduates with the federal government because too many of them are going into higher education.”
“Without really having a clearer understanding of not only what happened that put them under this scrutiny but also the reason that the critique has gone so public, there’s just a lot of nervousness,” Rose said. “Is this how business is going to be done now? Is this what it is going to be like working with U.S. Ed?”
The Federal Register
The Daily Journal of the United States Government
Notice of a Letter Regarding the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies
Office of the General Counsel, Department of Education.
The Department publishes a letter, dated August 29, 2019, notifying the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC”) of the Department's review of the Annual Project Reports (“APR”) submitted by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) during the most recent and prior award periods, and the 2018 National Resource Center proposal.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Patrick Shaheen, U.S. Department of Education, Office of the General Counsel, 400 Maryland Ave. SW, room 6E300, Washington, DC 20202. Telephone: (202) 453-6339. Email: Patrick.Shaheen@ed.gov.
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The Department publishes this letter, dated August 29, 2019, notifying the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill of the Department's review of the APR submitted by the Duke-UNC CMES during the most recent and prior award periods, and the 2018 National Resource Center proposal. The letter is in Appendix A of this notice.
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Reed D. Rubinstein,
Principal Deputy General Counsel, Delegated the duties and authority of the General Counsel.
Appendix A—Letter to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
August 29, 2019
Terry Magnuson, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Research
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research
312 South Building, Campus Box 4000 Chapel Hill, NC 27599-4000
Dear Dr. Magnuson:
Thank you for your letter of June 20, 2019, responding to the U.S. Department of Education's questions about the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (“Duke-UNC CMES”).
As you are aware, in Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, Congress authorizes grants 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. 20 U.S.C. 1021. The Secretary of Education may make Title VI grants to institutions of higher education or consortia of such institutions only for the purposes of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs, and of establishing, strengthening, and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs. 20 U.S.C. 11 22(a)(l)(A). Federal funding is conditioned on a demonstration that a given center or program is a “national resource” for teaching of any modem foreign language; for instruction in fields needed to provide full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which such language is commonly used; for research and training in the international and foreign language aspects of professional and other fields of study; and for instruction and research on issues in world affairs that concern one or more countries. 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(l)(B).
It is unlawful for institutions of higher education to use Title VI funds differently.
After reviewing your letter, the Annual Project Reports (“APR”) submitted by the Duke-UNC CMES during the most recent and prior award periods, and your 2018 National Resource Center proposal, the Department is concerned that most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized and that Duke-UNC CMES may not qualify as an eligible National Resource Center. Among other things:
- You report that 6,791 students were enrolled in taxpayer-funded Middle East studies course but that only 960 students were enrolled in Middle East language courses. It is unclear whether this means 960 different people participated in foreign language instruction or if the total headcount in foreign language courses was 960, meaning that some students could have been counted more than once because most of your programs require students to complete three to eight semesters of foreign language. Similarly, you do not clarify how many of those students took three or more semesters of a given language or the level of language fluency they achieved.
- Your application asserts collaborations with other academic departments. However, these departments are not, for the most part, aligned with the requirement that National Resource Centers help students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields achieve foreign language fluency. See 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(2)(J).
- Many of the topics and titles listed under the area studies section of your prior APRs have little or no relevance to Title VI. For example, although Iranian art and film may be of subjects of deep intellectual interest and may provide insight regarding aspects of the people and culture of the Middle East, the sheer volume of such offerings highlights a fundamental misalignment between your choices and Title VI's mandates. Although a conference focused on “Love and Desire in Modem 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. Similarly, the link between the statutory goals and the academic papers referenced in your grant proposal, Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History, or Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition, is patently unclear. While the Duke-UNC CMES may certainly offer programs in Iranian art and film, these programs should not be funded or subsidized in any way by American taxpayers under Title VI unless you are able to clearly demonstrate that such programs are secondary to more rigorous coursework helping American students to become fluent Farsi speakers and to prepare for work in areas of national need.
- The Duke-UNC CMES appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others. Also, in your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the 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. This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting legal requirement that National Resource Centers ”provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries” in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used. See 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(l)(B)(ii) (emphasis added); 34 CFR 656.3(b)(1).
- It appears from your APRs that the Duke-UNC CMES offers 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. For example, the description of an activity described as a “conversation” with Dr. Rosemary Corbett is “Dr. Corbett traces the broader history of pressures placed on religious minorities in the last century to conform to dominant American frameworks for race, gender and political economy. These include the encouraging of community groups to provide social services to the dispossessed in compensation for the government's lack of welfare provisions in an aggressively capitalist environment.” Another activity called “Music on the Porch” describes an outdoor concert series as an international program focused on Islam, music, and social change. The featured artist, Marco Pave, is described as a “millennial Muslim from Memphis,” who conducts workshops around the country on hip-hop and social justice, and he advocates greater support for the arts.” It is hard to understand how these things are consistent with a National Resource Center and lawfully supported by taxpayer funds to ensure the “security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States in a complex global era[.]” 20 U.S.C. 1121(a)(l).
- The job placement results included in your grant proposal indicate that the Duke-UNC CEMS provides opportunities and support primarily for individuals to pursue academic careers rather than in government or business as Congress directs. That 35 percent of program graduates go to higher education positions and only 11 percent to government positions suggests that there are critical shortcomings and impermissible biases in the programming.
- The teacher-training activities hosted by the Duke-UNC CMES lack lawful focus on language development and instead advance narrow, particularized views of American social issues. For example, a teacher training seminar included in a prior APR is described as having provided an opportunity for teachers to explore “issues of multicultural education and equity to build a culture and climate of respect in the classroom. Educators dove deeper during interactive break-out sessions focused on unconscious bias, safe classrooms for all, using film for global education, why culture matters and working across cultures, serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” There is a startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language of the area, as Congress required in Title VI.
The Department believes the Duke-UNC CMES has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI, and other activities, perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.
Furthermore, 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 at the Duke-UNC CMES. Notably, most of the instructors of foreign language courses are nontenure track lecturers or teaching assistants, whereas most of the instructors of other courses are tenured faculty. Given the important role tenured faculty play in attracting students to foreign language instruction and majors and enabling students to overcome the difficulty of mastering a language, the lack of tenured foreign languages faculty relative to the number of tenured culture studies faculty, may signal a potentially serious misalignment between Title IV requirements and the Duke-UNC CMES's orientation and activities.
The Department will hold the Duke-UNC CMES accountable for ensuring all Title VI funded or subsidized activities directly reflect express Congressional mandates and purposes. Therefore, as a condition for future Title VI funding, the Duke-UNC CMES is directed to provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States. For example, cultural studies providing historical information about customs and practices in the Middle East and assisting students to understand and navigate the culture of another country, in concert with rigorous foreign language training, could help develop a pool of experts needed to protect U.S. national security and economic stability and therefore may well be within Title VI's ambit. 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.
Also, the Duke-UNC CMES is required to demonstrate that it has prioritized foreign language instruction as required by law. More equal utilization of comparably credentialed faculty in foreign language instruction might prove to be an appropriate measure in this regard.
The Duke-UNC CMES is further required to provide the Department with a full list of courses in Middle East studies, including academic rank and employment status of each instructor who teaches each course.
Finally, the Duke-UNC CMES is further required to develop and implement effective institutional controls ensuring all future Title VI-funded activities directly promote foreign language learning and advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States, thereby meeting statutory requirements and meriting taxpayer funding.
The Department must obligate the funds to continue support for the Duke-UNC CMES by no later than September 30, 2019. Consequently, it is critically important that you respond in writing to this letter with a preliminary plan and timetable for carrying out the above-specified compliance activities on or before September 22, 2019.
Cc: Charles Kurzman, Ph.D., Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Kevin Guskiewicz, Interim Chancellor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Richard Stevens, Chair, University of North Carolina Board of Trustees
Vincent E. Price, President, Duke University
Jack 0. Bovender, Jr., Chair, Duke University Board of Trustees
[FR Doc. 2019-20067 Filed 9-16-19; 8:45 am]
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