The effort by some Jewish groups to establish a government-review procedure for claims of anti-Israel bias at universities scored a victory in the U.S. Senate, but at the expense of a mechanism some advocates say is crucial to addressing campus anti-Semitism.
The Senate passed legislation earlier this month that would require the Department of Education to consult with an array of U.S. security and diplomatic agencies before renewing grants to institutes of higher learning.
Advocates say the new language reinvigorates the intent of Title VI, education legislation passed in 1958 that launched federal funding for universities. At the time, Congress wanted to establish a corps of experts on foreign affairs among diplomats and defense analysts.
The U.S. government agencies "shall provide information to the Secretary regarding how the entities utilize expertise and resources provided by grantees under this title," says the legislation that was passed on Nov. 3 by the Senate. "The Secretary shall take into account such recommendations and information when requesting applications for funding under this title, and shall make available to applicants a list of areas identified as areas of national need."
Victory for Critics
Critics of the Middle East-studies establishment - chief among them Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - said universities had monumentally failed the original intent of Title VI when their experts could not manage to predict the rise of Islamism and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
If it passes the U.S. House of Representatives, the language would represent a necessary correction to how Title VI funds are applied, said Kramer.
"None of this is in the existing Title VI language, and its inclusion is a major victory for critics of Title VI bias," said Kramer, whose post-Sept. 11 book, Ivory Towers in the Sand, helped spur the Title VI reform movement.
But others were concerned that the Senate language omitted another monitoring mechanism included in a separate House bill. That legislation would have set up an advisory board that would "result in the growth and development of such programs at the post-secondary education level that will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views on world regions."
The board, with its emphasis on "diverse perspectives," would more directly address the concerns of Jewish groups than the Senate review procedures, according to its advocates. Granting security agencies review powers would realign Title VI grants with its framers' intent, they said, but would do little to alleviate the discomfort Jewish and pro-Israel students feel on campus.
Instead of an advisory board, the Senate bill would allow Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to suspend federal funding for a university for 60 days if she deems a bias complaint serious enough. After that, she would be required to resume the funding, whether or not the complaint has been resolved. She would also be authorized to take such complaints into account when renewing grants to universities.
Sarah Stern, the American Jewish Congress' director of governmental affairs, was one of the most vocal advocates of the board. Its exclusion, she noted, robbed the legislation of a tool that might help alleviate what she said is a campus atmosphere that allows some professors to use Middle Eastern studies to peddle anti-Semitism.
"There are people who can use all the tricks of the trade in scholarship to wrap around an ancient prejudice," she said.
She also expressed concern that the bill included language that would gut whatever review procedure was in place.
The Senate bill states that the Department of Education must not "mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction." The language was not new: Kramer cited it two years ago in dismissing critics who said the proposed legislation represented a bid for censorship.
But Stern said she had been lobbying hard to remove the language. A review procedure with teeth would encourage debate, not inhibit it, she said.
"Any intellectually honest person with integrity would say, 'Wait a minute, there is another side here,' " she put forth.
The Zionist Organization of America, another group advocating review procedures, also said the language undermined the bill's intent.
"There should be something in there that requires a balance of viewpoints," stated Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA's Center of Law and Justice. "It's not enough to ensure that appropriate changes are made."
Some Back and Forth
Others said the bill would fail to garner support if it did not include the language, and if it included the advisory board sought by Stern. Omitting language spelling out protections from federal government intervention in the classroom, and keeping in the advisory board, would represent a Pyrrhic victory if it scares legislators away from supporting it, they said.
The debate played out within the American Jewish Congress, with Stern advocating the advisory board, and Lois Waldman, co-director of AJCongress' Commission for Law and Social Action, advising against its inclusion.
"It is not likely that senators Clinton, Kennedy - and even some senators with many universities in their districts - would permit the advisory-board language to remain," Waldman said in an internal memo to Stern and others, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), two Democratic leaders on education issues. "[The] language without the advisory board is an improvement, making the bill easier to enact, and we should lobby for it."
Complicating matters was the fact that the language was buried in the Senate's massive Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, a bill that deals mostly with budget-cutting to offset the costs of war and hurricane recovery. It originally appeared in a separate Senate bill that dealt more particularly with higher-education funding.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate's Budget Committee, initiated the bill, and it passed 52-47, largely along party lines.