In June 2019, in response to an allegation by Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) hosted a conference, "Conflict Over Gaza," with "anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric," Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos ordered an investigation of the program. On August 29, the Department of Education threatened to terminate its grant to the Consortium because some of its courses and activities did not satisfy the legal requirement (under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965) to "support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability."
While CMES programs place "considerable emphasis" on positive aspects of Islam, Robert King, Assistant Secretary of the DOE declared, "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" or on discrimination faced by Christians, Jews, and others. Pandering, perhaps, to cultural warriors who judge books by their covers, King maintained as well that a conference on "Love and Desire in Modern Iran" and academic papers on "Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History" and on "Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition" were not relevant to the objectives of the grant.
As a condition for future funding, King ordered the Consortium to provide a revised schedule of activities, accompanied by evidence indicating how each one promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests of the United States.
The DOE letter, it is important to note, presented no evidence that the Consortium, which offers dozens of courses in Middle Eastern languages, history, culture, and politics, hosts conferences and other events, including film festivals, depicts Judaism or Christianity negatively. The investigation and the subsequent threat to withdraw financial support seem predicated on objections to the focus on Muslims (who do, after all, constitute the vast majority of the population of the Middle East). Nor did the DOE acknowledge that the $235,000 grant pays for only a fraction of CMES courses and activities, all of them, including those singled out by King, relevant to its requirement to "provide a full understanding of the region."
The DOE threat, it seems clear, is part of a playbook of political correctness, designed to appeal to anti-intellectualism and hostility to institutions of higher education, and have a chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom.
The dangers of politicizing education should be obvious to all Americans, left, right, and center. They should ask, along with Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors' committee on academic freedom, whether "the government is now going to judge funding programs based on the opinion of instructors or the approach of each course?" They should demand, along with Jay Smith, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, that King "stay in his lane and allow experts to determine what constitutes 'a full understanding' of the Middle East." Most of all, Americans should worry — a lot — about the implications of empowering bureaucrats in the Department of Education to determine the content of university courses and conferences.
In "The Great American University," Jonathan R. Cole demonstrates that the system of higher education in the United States achieved global preeminence because it had "a commitment to the ideal of free inquiry and institutional autonomy from the state." Efforts by government officials, acting as thought police, to censor those who hold positions counter to current policies, Cole reminds us, constitute a clear and present danger not only to our colleges and universities, but to freedom of thought and speech, the essential components of our democracy.
Betsy DeVos's DOE, Mark Joseph Stern predicts, may succeed — "not because the Trump administration has a strong case, but because the consortium might prefer to give in than engage in a lengthy legal battle over its own funding." Given the precedent it would set, that would be a shame.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.