Sarah Stern, founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) spoke to participants in a May 22 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about her efforts to fight anti-Israel bias at federally funded Middle East studies centers in the United States.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 was established to provide funding for foreign language and area studies instruction at institutions of higher learning because it was "felt that the Soviets ... had a better knowledge of foreign languages and cultures," Stern explained. Numerous Middle East studies centers at American universities have received funding under this program.
In the last several decades, however, "the pure rigorous discipline of Middle Eastern Studies has been substituted by nothing more than really paltry propaganda" that hardly serves the national security goals for which the Title VI program was established. Most of the 15 or so Title VI-Funded Middle East studies centers are "incredibly both anti-Israeli ... [and] sometimes antisemitic." To make matters worse, Title VI requires recipients to provide training workshops for teachers in kindergarten through 12th grade, which Stern calls "trickle down propaganda."
Determined to fight this problem, in 2008 Stern's EMET was part of a coalition that successfully pushed Congress to approve an amendment to Title VI of the HEA designed to ensure that grant recipients demonstrate a "diversity of perspectives" and "wide range of viewpoints."
However, when Stern met with Department of Education (DoE) officials under the Obama administration, she was shocked to discover that the "diversity of perspectives" clause was being interpreted to mean that the DoE personnel evaluating the grant applications should be racially diverse. "They said some of the readers of the grant application should be black, some should be white, some should be Hispanic, and that was their diversity of perspectives. And I said, 'I think it's pretty obvious, if you read the law, that the legislative intent was for a diversity of perspectives within the classroom.'"
During the Trump administration, DoE officials who met with Stern were more accommodating. "I explained what the law was, and they said, 'Okay, from now on, people that are applying for the grants have got to write an essay about what it is that their universities are doing to comply with the statutory requirement for a wide range of viewpoints and a diversity of perspectives'."
Another statutory requirement of Title VI funding that many of these centers often shirk is "promot[ing] access to research and training overseas, including through links to overseas institutions." The directors of at least eight Title VI Middle East studies centers have endorsed the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) agenda, Stern noted, which discourages study abroad and other contacts with Israeli universities.
"These universities are out of compliance with the law, and they need oversight, they need accountability."
Unfortunately, prodding the DoE to investigate Title VI Middle East studies centers and hold them accountable remains an uphill battle. Beginning last year, three Republican members of congress have written to DoE urging it to investigate Title VI violations – Reps. Denver Riggleman (about Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies), George Holding (Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies), and Paul Gosser (the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies). But only the Duke-UNC Consortium has been investigated so far, and in that case, according to Stern, "the Department of Education caved" and the consortium "is still getting its funding."
Many of these Middle East studies centers are also in violation of federal law by not reporting millions of dollars in grants they receive from autocratic Middle East governments, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The Higher Education Act requires universities to report any foreign donation of $250,000 or more. "So, in so many ways these universities are out of compliance with the law, and they need oversight, they need accountability, [and] nobody's watching them," Stern warned.