Yesterday, The New York Times reported: "U.S. Orders Duke and U.N.C. to Recast Tone in Mideast Studies." The truth is that the article says as much as about the priorities of The Times as it does about the priorities of the U.S. Department of Education. Here is what actually happened.
Robert King, an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Education, did write a letter to the University of North Carolina that threatens to discontinue federal Title VI funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium of Middle East Studies (The "Consortium"). The Times article portrays this action as mostly about perceived bias against Israel. The article mentions Israel or the Palestinians over and over again in the first half of the article.
In fact, the Department of Education letter makes no mention of Israel or Palestine whatsoever. The letter focuses overwhelmingly on the fact that the Title VI grant is largely for the purpose of teaching language fluency, especially for future government employees and scientists, and that the Duke-UNC Middle East courses are not sufficiently addressing that goal. This issue is discussed throughout the letter, which says: "You report that 6,791 students were enrolled in taxpayer-funded Middle East studies course but that only 960 students were enrolled in Middle East language courses. It is unclear whether this means 960 different people participated in foreign language instruction or if the total headcount in foreign language courses was 960, meaning that some students could have been counted more than once because most of your programs require students to complete three to eight semesters of foreign language. Similarly, you do not clarify how many of those students took three or more semesters of a given language or the level of language fluency they achieved."
The letter also criticizes the Consortium for failing to help students develop language fluency in the natural and applied sciences: "Your application asserts collaborations with other academic departments. However, these departments are not, for the most part, aligned with the requirement that National Resource Centers help students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields achieve foreign language fluency."
The letter expresses further concern that the Consortium is not furthering the goal of preparing students for government work such as diplomacy or intelligence or for work in the business world: "The job placement results included in your grant proposal indicate that the Duke-UNC CEMS provides opportunities and support primarily for individuals to pursue academic careers rather than in government or business as Congress directs. That 35 percent of program graduates go to higher education positions and only 11 percent to government positions suggests that there are critical shortcomings and impermissible biases in the programming."
These are all perfectly legitimate criticisms of the use of government grant money. It does not violate the first amendment for the government to fund some priorities over others even when this impacts speech and education. There is nothing wrong with the Department of Education providing funding for language fluency, training in sciences and technology, or preparing students for government service. The Times article fails to discuss the issues of training future government employees and scientists at all, and mentions the language issue only briefly, in the middle section of the article.
In fairness to the Times, the letter does criticize the consortium for lack of balance in its treatment of religious groups. "The Duke-UNC CMES appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha'is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others. Also, in your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East. This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting legal requirement that National Resource Centers 'provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries' in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used."
Balance is a worthy goal, but having government officials dictate to universities whether their treatment of various religions is sufficiently "positive" is an obvious threat to academic freedom. Universities and their allies would be right to pressure the Department of Education to back off of this line of criticism.
Also in fairness to the Times' spin on the letter, the dispute takes place within a larger context. There have been a number of controversies over anti-Israel bias and even outright anti-Semitism at conferences sponsored by Middle Eastern Studies programs. Perhaps most notoriously, at a Duke-UNC conference, one of the presentations was so egregious that the UNC Chancellor felt compelled to issue the following statement: ""A performance during a recent conference held on our campus contained disturbing and hateful language. Like many members of our community, I am heartbroken and deeply offended that this performance happened. I stand steadfast against Anti-Semitism and hate in all its forms. The Carolina spirit is not about hateful language that divides us, but about civil discourse that advances ideas and knowledge. We must continue to aspire together to that ideal." Furthermore, the Department of Education has been more aggressive about pursuing allegations of anti-Semitism at universities than it was under the previous administration.
So nothing is simple here. Anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism (which, as I argue elsewhere, are distinct but strongly related) are part of the background of this letter. But the more complex the issue, the more important accuracy is. The great majority of the Department of Education letter expresses completely legitimate concerns. It expresses other views that are a threat to academic freedom. Friends of academic freedom should be forceful, but careful and accurate in their response.