The Trump administration has threatened to withdraw federal funding to a joint Duke University-University of North Carolina Middle East studies program over concerns it has misused federal funding and displayed a pro-Islam bias.
The Department of Education sent a letter late last month warning the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East studies that it appears to be failing to meet requirements for a National Resource Center grant for foreign language and culture programs.
The department accused the consortium of lacking balance by offering "very few, if any," programs focused on the historical discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East.
"[T]here 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 signed by Assistant Secretary Robert King reads.
The department believes that the consortium is failing to meet the requirement that National Resource Centers "provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries."
"The Department believes the Duke-UNC [consortium] has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI, and other activities, perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support," the letter explains.
The letter slammed training activities hosted by the consortium, saying that they lack "lawful focus on language development" and advance "narrow, particularized views of American social issues."
"It seems clear foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken 'a back seat' to other priorities at the Duke-UNC CMES," King contends.
King takes issue with the lack of tenured foreign language faculty compared to the larger number of tenured culture studies faculty, suggesting that it "may signal a potentially serious misalignment between Title IV requirements and the Duke-UNC CMES's orientation and activities."
King's letter, sent in late August, gave the consortium until Sept. 22 to revise its offerings or potentially lose funding. Last year, the consortium received over 235,000 in federal grant funding.
The department asked the consortium to send a revised schedule with explanations for how each of its programs and activities promotes foreign language learning or advances national security interest.
UNC Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson sent a response letter to King on Sept. 20. A copy of the letter was obtained by The News & Observer.
In the letter, Magnuson explained that the consortium will re-examine its procedures to ensure that Title VI funding is used for activities that "match the purpose and requirements of the Title VI program."
Additionally, Magnuson explained that Duke University and UNC will create an advisory board that will be tasked with reviewing the consortium's activities.
"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," Magnuson said in the letter. "In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about our programs."
Magnuson's letter also contested the claim that Title VI funds were used for two activities deemed to be inappropriate use of funds, saying that those activities were not paid for by Title VI funds.
Magnuson also refuted King's claim that there is an "absolute absence" of focus on the positive impacts of Christianity and other religions.
"In fact, positive appreciation for Christianity, Judaism, and other religions of the Middle East suffuses all of the Consortium's K-12 outreach activities, including specific events that have focused on Christianity and Judaism in the Middle East, such as a visit to a Jewish center to explore Jewish traditions, presentations on Christianity in Lebanon, and presentations on religious diversity throughout the Middle East," Magnuson wrote.
The Department of Education launched an investigation into the consortium after Republican Rep. George Holding wrote a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in April voicing concern with reports of "anti-Israel bias" and "antisemitic rhetoric" heard at a conference hosted by the consortium in March.
The conference was titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities." Holding claimed that the conference featured a rapper singing a "brazenly anti-Semitic song."
Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC and vice president of its chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told NBC News that King's letter amounts to "ideologically driven harassment."
Smith argued that King "should stay in his lane and allow the experts to determine what constitutes a 'full understanding' of the Middle East."
According to NBC News, over 12 universities received National Resource Center grants for their Middle East studies programs.
According to King's letter, the Education Department must obligate funds to renew support to the consortium for the fiscal year 2020 by no later than Sept. 30.