A Middle Eastern studies program may lose its federal funding for emphasizing cultural content and Islam over language instruction.
The federal government gives $235,000 a year to the joint Middle Eastern studies program at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The money, appropriated under Title VI of the Education Act of 1965, is supposed to help colleges teach foreign languages to students in furtherance of U.S. security and economic interests.
But at the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies, the funds support offerings such as a class on Iranian art and film, a conference titled "Love and Desire in Modern Iran," and an activity called "Music on the Porch" featuring a Muslim rapper who "conducts workshops around the country on hip-hop and social justice," according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education.
The department sent a letter to the consortium in late August threatening to cut its Title VI funding after a monthslong investigation into its activities and curriculum.
"There is a considerable emphasis placed on ... 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 said, calling the lack of balanced perspectives on religion "troubling."
The federal government rarely gets involved in college curricula content even though it has the authority to demand changes at colleges that accept federal grants and financial aid. More than a dozen universities receive a total of $3.5 million in National Resource Center grants for their Middle Eastern programs. Founded in 2005, the Duke-UNC center became a recipient almost a decade ago.
U.S. Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., sparked the Department of Education investigation when he criticized a taxpayer-funded conference the Duke-UNC center hosted in March. He said the event had "severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric." The conference, titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities," included a rapper who performed a "brazenly anti-Semitic song," he wrote.
The Education Department gave the consortium until Sunday to provide a revised list of courses and activities with justification for how each one helped meet the goals of the Title VI program.
Similarly, the department reopened an investigation last year that had been closed since 2014 at Rutgers University. It involved an outside group that allegedly charged Jewish attendees admission fees for a school-sanctioned event in 2011 while allowing others in for free.
Holding praised the federal government crackdown on grant recipients. "This has fallen through the cracks, and this could be going on at other educational institutions," he said. "If the department's providing the money and giving guidance on how the money is to be used, I think they can be as in-the-weeds as they need to be."