Nineteen academic organizations, including the American Academy of Religion, have signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Education objecting to its investigation into a Middle East studies program run jointly by the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
Last month, the department ordered the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings or risk losing future funding from a federal grant that's awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction.
The department accused the consortium of "advancing ideological priorities" and promoting the "positive aspects of Islam," but not of Christianity or Judaism. The accusations of the program were published in the Federal Register on Aug. 29.
The investigation into the Duke-UNC consortium was ordered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after North Carolina Rep. George Holding, a Republican, complained about a taxpayer-funded conference at UNC with "severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric."
In their letter, the academic organizations said the department's allegations constitute an "unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country's institutions of higher education."
It also said the department's accusation that some activities were unauthorized appears to be based on "a fundamental misunderstanding of how expertise in foreign languages, cultural competencies, and area and international knowledge in general is obtained."
The Society of Biblical Literature, an international organization devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of disciplines, and the Middle East Studies Association, a nonprofit that fosters the study of the Middle East, were among the co-signers of the letter.
Late last week, UNC sent the Department of Education a lengthy response disputing the accusations of bias and saying it provides "positive appreciation" of Christianity and Judaism, including programs that detail the persecution faced by religious minorities in the Middle East.
"The Consortium's activities 'reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs,' in compliance with 20 U.S. Code 1122," UNC responded.
But regardless of whether the program was in compliance, many scholars said, it was inappropriate for the Department of Education to be concerned about an academic teaching of "the positive aspects of Islam."
"The idea that any academic enterprise is about positive or negative evaluation of any particular community is a misunderstanding of what Title VI funding is for, which is to improve understanding, not to give good or bad coverage to any particular community," said Anna Bigelow, associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University and a member of three of the academic organizations that co-signed the letter to the Department of Education.
The consortium received a four-year grant for $235,000 per year in 2018. The money goes toward developing programming and resources and providing fellowships for students pursuing advanced language study.
Several scholars at UNC and Duke's Middle East studies consortium declined interviews, but other scholars said the investigation was apparently prompted by a conference in March, titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities." That conference included an evening performance by Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar. A comment he made onstage sparked outrage from some Jewish listeners.
There's no mention of the conference in the Education Department's letter. Instead it mentions a UNC conference focused on "love and desire in modern Iran" and another focused on Middle East film criticism, which the department said "have little or no relevance to Title VI."
UNC responded that neither program was funded by Title VI grant money.
Christopher S. Rose, who worked for 15 years as a Title VI program administrator at the University of Texas at Austin, said he was surprised at the public nature of the complaint. When questions arise about programming supported by grants, the Department of Education tends to communicate privately through letters, emails and phone calls, not by publishing letters in the Federal Register.
"It's a very unusual departure from the normal way of doing business," said Rose, a postdoctoral fellow with UT-Austin's Institute for Historical Studies. "There's a lot of questions and nervousness about whether there's something else going on here, or there's a deeper significance in why it's so public."