The Trump administration has threatened to cut funding from a Middle East studies program operated by Duke University and the University of North Carolina in part because it allegedly places emphasis on the "positive aspects of Islam" without promoting Christianity or Judaism.
An August 29 letter from the United States Department of Education says that the joint program is not in compliance with the conditions guiding its funding by the National Resource Center, which offers grants to Middle Eastern programs at prominent universities across the country.
If the program does not alter its course selections by September 22, it could lose future access to National Resource Center funds, the letter said. The program received $235,000 from the grant last year.
"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," the letter says. "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.'"
The letter also asked for clarity about why 6,791 students were listed as enrolled in Middle Eastern studies courses but only 960 were reported as taking Middle Eastern language classes.
Since 1991, the government has sought to encourage college students to study "non-Western" languages including Arabic, Hebrew and Kurdish by offering scholarships and job opportunities "designed to serve the needs of U.S. national security" through the National Security Education Program.
"This [letter] sends a chilling message to students of Islam and the Middle East that they can only pursue and produce scholarship if it aligns with government policies," Asad Dandia, a graduate student of Islamic studies at Columbia University, told Newsweek.
Critics have described the letter from the Education Department as an attempt for the administration to enforce its views on Israel.
Zoha Khalili, a staff lawyer at rights group Palestine Legal, told The New York Times that the threat was part of a broader effort to ensure that Middle East programs adhere to pro-Israel stances promoted by the Trump administration.
"The Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program. In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about its programs," a UNC-Chapel Hill spokesperson told Newsweek.
Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment about the Trump administration's threat but told Newsweek he wanted to issue a clarification.
"The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is separate and distinct from Duke University's academic departments, which have sole authority for setting curriculum, courses and other educational programs for Duke students. The Consortium has no role in those decisions," Schoenfeld told Newsweek in a statement.