Here’s an interesting thought experiment: If you were a professor in charge of a class on geopolitical strategy focusing on Iran, and a student wrote a paper analyzing gender roles in Iranian films, would you give the student a passing grade? Would it even matter if his film analysis happened to be good?
That is essentially the situation faced by Department of Education (DOE) Secretary Betsy DeVos and Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King, who sent a letter to the Duke University/University of North Carolina (UNC) Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) questioning the efficacy of its Title VI grant-funded programs. “The Department believes [CMES] has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI, and other activities … [that are] protected by general principles of academic freedom … [but are] plainly unqualified for taxpayer support [under Title VI].”
If you were to take a glance at news stories concerning this letter, you could be excused for thinking that it amounted to an apocalyptic assault on the academy, an attempt at Muslim bashing, some form of pro-Israel extremism, or some other assault on American rights, freedoms, or norms.
The truth, however, is far less shocking.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act was created during the Cold War for very specific reasons, including that “[t]he 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” and that the U.S. must therefore “develop a pool of international experts to meet national needs,” in order to “develop and maintain capacity and performance in area/international studies and world languages.” In other words, the purpose was to ensure the U.S. had sufficient experts in foreign languages and foreign affairs in order to compete with its geopolitical rivals.
The DOE’s letter to the CMES alleges that “most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized.” It then cites a number of Title VI-funded projects, highlighting “a fundamental misalignment between [the universities’] choices and Title VI’s mandates.” These projects include academic papers entitled “Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History” and “Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition.”
“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,” the letter continues.
Nonetheless, critics of DOE’s letter are apoplectic. Zoha Khalili, a staff lawyer with Palestine Legal, claims DOE wants to “send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death.”
Yet, DOE’s letter doesn’t once mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Similarly, one wildly misleading headline read: “Trump Administration says joint UNC, Duke program portrays Islam too Positively.” But the real language of the letter is quite different. Instead, it criticizes CMES’ disproportionate focus on portraying “the positive aspects of Islam,” without also portraying positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Yazidism, or other religions also indigenous to the region.
These facts are revealing: For many involved in Title VI, particularly concerning Middle East studies, preaching about their pet issue is more important than equipping future American experts in national security-related topics.
Those, such as UNC History Professor Jay Smith, who claim that DOE’s letter is engaging in “ideologically driven harassment” are engaged in a classic case of projection. It is more appropriate to charge some Title VI recipients with “ideological harassment” than the reverse. As several studies show, a large number of faculty in charge of Title VI funds support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. That naturally affects their programming. It is hard to see how ideologically driven political campaigns aimed at one of America’s closest allies fits under the purpose of the government program.
It is true that this particular inquiry has its genesis in a letter sent to DOE by Rep. George Holding (R-NC), concerning a CMES-sponsored event that included a rapper singing a “brazenly anti-Semitic song”— but many Jewish and academic groups have complained about overt anti-Semitism in various Title VI-funded programs for years. But even toxic anti-Semitism is a symptom of the larger problem: Specifically, that certain academics consider their pet ideological issue of paramount importance and are not overly concerned about the stated legal goals of Title VI.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that according to a recent article in The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, CMES has already received its funding from DOE for the 2019-2020 academic year. This means that DOE’s letter is simply an initial first step toward cajoling the CMES to fulfilling the goals of the grant it is nonetheless still receiving. There is no present threat to its funding or to any specific programing. The hyperventilating surrounding the issue is simply because some in the academy have grown so accustomed to their agenda being blindly funded by Title VI that they feel cheated when someone even requests that they uphold their end of the bargain.
It’s not DeVos or King who is being primarily driven by ideology. The defenders of the status quo on Title VI should take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Clifford Smith is Washington Project Director at the Middle East Forum.