U.S. Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) is one of the latest politicians to weigh in on the debate surrounding universities' use of federal funds.
This time, University of California-Berkeley's (UCB) Center for Middle East Studies (CMES) is in the limelight. In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Lamborn chiefly urges the Department of Education to investigate whether CMES has misallocated federal funds granted in accordance with Title VI of the Higher Education Act (Title VI/HEA). He also hints at possible civil-rights violations. But before the letter is examined, something needs to be cleared up.=This (and past similar developments) is not about "free speech." It's about funding allocation. Those who have expressed concern that taxpayer money may be funding biased and one-sided education have never suggested otherwise. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped some from leveling the disingenuous argument that the feds are proliferating an authoritarian assault on the First Amendment, motivated by a presumptive desire to shield Israel from all criticism on college campuses.
For example, on Jan. 7, 2020, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace Lara Friedman tweeted that the Trump administration's recent executive order extending protections to Jews under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (Title VI/CRA) was actually drafted to "target ... campus free speech critical of Israel." Her subsequent thread is a compilation of news articles, op-eds, briefs from legal institutes and congressional letters to the Department of Education that supposedly validate her claim that our freedoms are under attack. Notably, one of the congressional letters that Friedman links to alleges Title VI/HEA violations, not discrimination in violation of Title VI/CRA and the executive order. She confuses two entirely different statutes.
But that's beside the point. The important takeaway is this: Schools found to be in violation of Title VI/HEA and/or Title VI/CRA are at risk of losing federal funding, not their right to speak freely. A professor wants to advocate for the BDS movement? Fine, but efforts to implement those policies at an institutional level, or to predominantly teach one-sided narratives within a Title VI/HEA-funded department are likely antithetical to the law's provisions.
Lamborn explains exactly why in his letter: Title VI/HEA stipulates that grants levied under its auspices (institutions eligible for such funds are dubbed "National Resource Centers") should " ... [strengthen] the interests of the United States in a complex global environment, by ensuring that universities are properly resourced to educate students in matters related to foreign affairs, including relevant linguistic and cultural training. The overarching goal is national security oriented" (emphasis added). He explains further, "In order for this goal to be accomplished, it is imperative that students are presented with fact-based information, not agitprop with agendas quite different from Congress and the United States Government. For divisive international political matters, it is critical that students not only be presented with objective information, but also competing narratives for which students must decide for themselves ... the truth of the matter."
Berkeley's CMES is a National Resource Center that receives Title VI/HEA funds. So, if past allegations (mentioned in Lamborn's letter) that the department is institutionally biased against Israel, as reflected in their alleged refusal to host events that portray Israel in a positive light, are true, that very well may contravene Title VI/HEA requirements to furnish diverse viewpoints. And, as much as it may pain many academics to hear this, Israel is a close ally of the United States in the war against terrorism and is a country that shares our democratic values. Accordingly, the one-sided anti-Zionist polemics endemic to academe do not advance our national security interests.
To make national security-related matters worse, there is the issue of foreign money; according to Lamborn's letter, UCB has received $24 million from Saudi Arabia since 2012. As Lamborn shrewdly observes, " ... While the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share some strategic goals, their interests and values differ greatly, and the wishes of the Saudi government or government-connected businessmen should not drive American national security education." One can't help but wonder if these generous gifts come with obligations of their own.
The letter details yet more concerning examples of Title VI/HEA funds possibly intermingling with blatantly politicized scholarship, if not outright political activism within CMES, including:
- In 2012, visiting professor of history Ussama Makdisi asserted in his piece "Setting the record straight: The Arabs, Zionism and the Holocaust," published in Duke University Press's Tikkun magazine, that "the line between opposition to the Zionist claim to Palestine and a generalized antipathy for Jews was indeed blurred beyond recognition" and that father of Palestinian nationalism Haj Amin al-Husseini's affinity for Nazi Germany "is evoked mostly to deny the nakba." (In reality, al-Husseini was a vicious anti-Semite who once urged his followers to "Kill the Jews wherever you find them").
- During a 2015 on-campus talk, CMES professor Keith Feldman bizarrely (and inaccurately) surmised that both the United States and Israel are perennially engaged in warfare, and have been since each country's advent, because of "racialized practices of threat production adhering in the enduring violence of white supremacy and settler sovereignty." (Comparing the necessary defense of Jewish self-determination to the brutal exercise of white supremacy is not serious scholarship, but borderline anti-Semitic revisionism).
- In 2009, CMES chair Emily Gottreich signed a letter that called for the stoppage of University of California's program that provides students the opportunity to spend a year in Israel. (Of course, Title VI/HEA stipulates that National Resource Centers must maintain linkages with overseas educational institutions).
Various scholars and activists have long argued that Middle East Studies departments across the country lack viewpoint diversity, passing off anti-Israel polemics as rigorous scholarship.
Lamborn is more than justified in calling for "an investigation as to how Title VI resources are used ... to ensure funds appropriated by Congress for U.S. national security interests are spent accordingly, not on politicized scholarship aimed mostly at one of America's closest allies." Does this mean that professors are not allowed to be critical of Israel? No. Does it mean that they can't teach a pro-BDS perspective in their classrooms? No. Does it mean that the above examples should be banned on college campuses? Most certainly no. It means that, so long as certain Middle East studies departments (or any department for that matter) receive Title VI/HEA funds, that money should provide students with balanced, rigorous, and intellectually diverse educations in accordance with the statute.
The Middle East Forum's Cliff Smith recently summed up the issue perfectly: "Universities want federal money, just not federal mandates, which they believe threatens academic freedom." Of course, if schools are unwilling to abide by the feds' grant stipulations, nothing says they have to accept the funds. If they want the cash to keep flowing, perhaps internal efforts to depoliticize Middle East studies are imminent—a development we should all encourage.