The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday demanded that the Education Department rescind a letter threatening the funding of a Middle Eastern studies program run by two universities, saying the action threatens constitutional protections of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
The demand follows allegations by the Education Department in August that the program run jointly by Duke University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, doesn't align with guidelines for a $235,000 federal grant it receives for international studies and foreign-language programs.
In their letter on Friday, ACLU leaders said the allegations had nothing to do with how the money was used and everything to do with political retaliation for what the Trump administration considered to be anti-Israel bias expressed at a conference.
"We are deeply troubled by this inquiry's potential impact on curricula at other institutions," wrote Ronald Newman, ACLU national political director, and Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
The federal government rarely intervenes in the intricacies of college curricula, but the agency has broad authority to demand changes of schools that accept federal grants and financial aid. The department under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has taken an unprecedented role in addressing what the Trump administration has called pervasive anti-Israel bias at colleges and universities.
The Education Department's allegations were the result of an investigation that found that the Duke-UNC program, which used Title VI funds, put "considerable emphasis" on the positive aspects of Islam, while not attempting to similarly demonstrate the positive aspects of Judaism and Christianity. The letter to the schools stated that the program's offerings were unduly focused on "advancing ideological priorities."
The department ordered the two universities to submit a revised curriculum, listing events it plans to host and the professors it employs.
"Federal funding is conditioned on a demonstration that a given center program is a 'national resource,'" the department's assistant secretary for post-secondary education, Robert King, wrote in the letter. "We are concerned that most of the Duke-UNC [Center for Middle Eastern Studies] activities supported with Title VI funds are unqualified."
The ACLU letter is accompanied by a Freedom of Information Act request for all Education Department communications concerning Duke-UNC consortium as well as investigations into any other programs paid for with Title VI funds.