Fourteen prominent Jewish and advocacy groups urged a key Senate committee to reform the Higher Education Act (HEA), which they claim is being "misused to promote biased, one-sided, and anti-Israel programming in our nation's Middle East studies centers."
In a letter sent to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on Wednesday, the coalition of signatories accused Middle East studies programs funded in dozens of universities under the law's Title VI statute of amounting to "unbalanced and biased efforts at indoctrination."
Title VI programs were first introduced in 1958 as a way to cultivate American expertise in foreign languages and different world regions during the Cold War era. The frequent exclusion of "scholars with diverse perspectives" harms these objectives, and violates a requirement put forth by Congress when it reauthorized an amended version of the HEA in 2008, the groups claimed.
"Biased professors have leveraged Title VI funds to cement their control over both their programs and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the principal academic organization for scholars of the region," charged the coalition, which includes the American Jewish Committee, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and Endowment for Middle East Truth, among others.
Rather than fostering objective scholarship, MESA "now empowers an intellectually corrupt elite and encourages polemical politicized work that has transformed Middle East studies centers into a source of anti-American and anti-Israel propaganda," they continued.
The signatories alleged that such a disproportionate focus on Israel harms US national security interests, as it has led the centers, for instance, "to either ignore or understate the impact of the Syrian revolt against Assad and the rise of ISIS, and to ignore or understate the expansion of Iranian hegemony in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan."
"These analytical failures cost America both lives and billions of dollars," and also have an impact on the wider population, the groups wrote.
Title VI requires centers to conduct "public outreach" efforts, such as K-12 teacher training programs, meaning that the public is also exposed to "politicized materials" with little or no oversight, the coalition asserted. "Consequently, students too young to recognize biases are indoctrinated and arrive at college predisposed to accept politicized interpretations of the Middle East."
The groups emphasized that Congress should not silence the viewpoints currently being promoted in these programs, but rather ensure that others are also heard, per federal law. They encouraged the HELP Committee to adopt reforms laid out in the HEA reauthorization bill that passed the House Education and Workforce Committee in December, dubbed the PROSPER Act.
These include requiring Title VI recipients to annually report on their efforts to uphold viewpoint diversity, and barring grantees from promoting "views that are discriminatory towards any group, religion, or population of people."
They also called for defining key terms in Title VI to improve enforcement, and requiring the Department of Education to score Title VI applications on their success in encouraging viewpoint diversity.
"Studies have repeatedly shown that Federal funds are being used by our nation's top universities to promote one-sided, and often anti-Semitic, programming that masquerades as scholarship," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the campus watchdog AMCHA Initiative, which signed the letter. "It violates the law and completely distorts the scholarly and educational mission of the university."
The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, another signatory, stressed that the reforms will help ensure "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," said Alyza Lewin, the center's director of policy.
MESA, which did not respond to requests for comment by press time, has previously rejected charges that federally-funded Middle East studies centers are steeped in anti-Israel bias. Amy Newhall, MESA's executive director, dismissed a 2014 statement issued on Title VI by several of the same signatories behind Wednesday's letter as a "politically motivated [attack] on scholars and academic institutions."
"MSA resolutely opposes all forms of hate speech and discrimination, including anti-Semitism," and supports action in response to such incidents on campus, she told Inside Higher Ed.
Newhall accused "partisan political groups based outside academia" of aiming "to shut down open discussion of issues of public concern by demonizing academic and other critics of Israel, Zionism, and U.S. policy in the Middle East, in many cases by tarring them with the brush of anti-Semitism."
"They are even willing to threaten federal funding for university-based Middle East studies centers," she said, "which have a long and distinguished history of providing the United States with thousands of people trained in the languages, politics, cultures and histories of this critical region."
The HELP Committee will hold its fourth hearing on reauthorizing the HEA on Tuesday. Sen. Alexander has indicted that he wants to have the Senate reauthorization bill prepared "by early spring."