The Department of Education maintained that the joint Duke University-University of North Carolina program needs to "expand" to include more religions beyond Islam to fulfill federal grant funding requirements.
The department stood its ground that the consortium needs to diversify its content to meet the requirements of the Title VI federal funding, according to a letter it sent to the program from Assistant Secretary Robert King on Wednesday.
King wrote in the letter that the department is "simply encouraging" the increased diversity after it determined "certain religions or ideological points of view" were elevated over others in the program.
"Although the Consortium claims that it gave equal attention and fair treatment to diverse perspectives in the region, its Annual Progress Reports do not support that conclusion," the letter states.
The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies has received its funding for the next school year at the end of last month, according to Duke's student newspaper Duke Chronicle.
A representative for the Education Department said the funding was provided "because the goal was to bring the CMES into compliance with the Title VI rules, and that we are working with the school to ensure that the money is used for the purposes set out by Congress."
King's letter was written in response to a letter sent by the consortium on Sept. 25 protesting the department's August letter. That first letter directed the program to be revised because it disproportionately portrays "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 August letter stirred controversy as some claimed the department was impeding on academic freedom and attempting to "micromanage" the program, according to the program's Sept. 25 letter quoted in this week's letter.
"In that regard, our request was never to reduce the focus on Islam and its unassailable importance in the region," King wrote in the Wednesday letter. "Rather, our letter made clear that the Consortium must expand its offerings to include, in addition to Islamic studies, the study of other religions that are practiced by significant numbers of people in the region."
The Education Department said it retains the responsibility to ensure federal funding is being used properly to "fulfill the purpose of Title VI, which includes the presentation of diverse perspectives to students."
The National Resource funding done through Title VI is intended to go to programs that "reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs," according to the letter.
The Hill reached out to the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center for comment.