Today, fourteen Jewish, educational, and civil rights organizations urged the U.S. Senate to reform the Higher Education Act to prevent misuse of federal funds by publicly supported, university-based Middle East studies programs. In a letter to Chairman Lamar Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the coalition charged that "federal funds under Title VI of the [Higher Education Opportunity Act or HEOA] are being misused to promote biased, one-sided, and anti-Israel programming in our nation's Middle East studies centers."
To address this problem, the coalition urged the senators to ensure that these programs comply with existing requirements to provide "diverse perspectives and a wide range of views." "Urgent reform is needed," said Alyza Lewin, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Policy at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB). "Our groups have been concerned for years that federal funds are being misused in ways that undermine the purpose for which they have been authorized, which is to strengthen America's national security. Congress now has a real opportunity to prevent manipulation of this program for political purposes."
The coalition of signatory groups included major Jewish, educational, and civil rights organizations: Academic Council for Israel, AMCHA Initiative, American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists (AAJLJ), American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), American Jewish Committee (AJC), B'nai B'rith International, Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), IAC for Action, The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (LDB), Middle East Forum, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), Simon Wiesenthal Center, StandWithUs (SWU), and Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). "It has been gratifying," Alyza Lewin remarked, "to work with these diverse groups to ensure that federal funds are properly used and that universities permit a wide range of voices to be heard."
The coalition urged the Senate to expand upon reforms that have already been adopted by a key committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce addressed this issue in H.R. 4508, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. The Prosper Act, which passed Committee last month and is awaiting a vote on the House floor, would reauthorize the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA). "We commend Chairman Virginia Foxx for the important Middle East studies reforms that her House committee adopted and hope that senators will expand upon them," Alyza Lewin added.
Congress previously addressed the misuse of federal funds by Middle East Studies programs a decade ago in its 2008 reauthorization of the HEOA. At the time, Congress required that publicly-funded Title VI programs "reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views." Despite this important reform, many Title VI recipients have continued to engage in the same misconduct that led Congress to act a decade ago.
The coalition letter observed that, "many programs funded under Title VI do not serve the program's basic objectives of advancing the interests of American national security and foreign relations. They often exclude scholars with diverse perspectives and stifle discourse on critical issues. The biased learning environment that results suppresses the academic freedom of students and faculty; at some institutions, students are afraid to disagree with their professors."
"It is unfortunate that many universities and the U.S. Department of Education have not done what Congress required ten years ago," Alyza Lewin explained. The coalition letter emphasized this point. "While we would have thought that Congress' intention in 2008 to assure that programs funded under Title VI presented diverse points of view—not only diversity as to the identity of instructors or as to their respective disciplines—was clear," says the letter, "the Department of Education (ED) has failed to adequately apply the "diverse perspectives and a wide range of views" requirement, and many universities have ignored this requirement."
To help solve these systemic problems and ensure taxpayer funds are spent properly, the coalition letter urges the Senators to accept three simple reforms. First, they should approve reforms recently approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee to, inter alia, require annual reporting by the Education Department on its administration of this program. Second, they should define key terms in the statute to ameliorate continuing confusion. Third, they should require the Department of Education to "score" (or evaluate) the pertinent portion of universities' Title VI applications, giving appropriate credit to those universities that take effective actions to comply with federal requirements.
Alyza Lewin continued, "At the end of the day, these reforms are all about ensuring that students are exposed to the widest range of viewpoints, research, and scholarship. This should be welcome news to those universities that embrace freedom of speech and academic freedom – and a wakeup call to those that do not." Indeed, the coalition letter emphasized this point. "Much as we believe that the programs at or organized by Title VI-funded Middle East studies centers are unbalanced and biased efforts at indoctrination—to the point that they fail to adhere to basic academic norms," the coalition wrote, "It is not our intention, or Congress' role, to silence those perspectives." Rather, the groups explained, "it is, however, imperative that steps be taken to ensure that Title VI grant recipients comply with the "diverse perspectives and a wide range of views" requirement and not promote a monochromatic view on the issues with which their Title VI-funded programs deal.
The full text of the letter can be found here.