WASHINGTON — Organizations representing thousands of universities are expressing concerns about a Senate effort to slash their federal funding if they don't promote "ideological diversity" — a legislative effort to remedy anti-Semitism on campus.
The possibility of withholding funds arose at a March meeting between top Senate Republicans and Jewish activists who reported rising incidents of anti-Semitism and an increasingly anti-Israel agenda among college professors. A legislative solution would alter the funding formula under Title IX of the Higher Education Act to include not only sexual equality but also "ideological diversity" as a precondition of receiving the funds.
The chief lobbyist for the largest association of universities in America, however, said adding ideological diversity could dig schools into "a regulatory quagmire." A spokeswoman for another association of universities said "ideological diversity" would be nearly impossible to define and enforce.
"We'd really have to see how they defined it and what they were interested in doing, but folks are reticent to touch Title IX historically," the vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education, Terry Hartle, said. The council represents 1,800 schools. "It could easily turn into a nightmare for colleges and universities."
Mr. Hartle said he could not say whether he would lobby senators to oppose a legislative change until he knew more about it. A Senate Republican aide said a bid to include "ideological diversity" could come about during a reauthorization of Title IX in the next few weeks, and that the specifics are in the works.
The no. 3 Republican in the Senate, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, is driving the examination of anti-Semitism on college campuses, and while he may be the one to formally introduce the legislative change, he is not alone. Several other top Republicans or staff representatives, including one for Senate Majority Leader Frist of Tennessee, attended the March meeting with Jewish activists. Senators at that meeting discussed an investigation or commission as alternatives to legislation.
The possibility of a congressional solution is creating ripples in the Jewish community, the director of the Center for Israel Affairs for the Hillel Foundation, Wayne Firestone, said. Mr. Firestone, whose group serves Jewish students, made a presentation at the March meeting.
"Everywhere I go,this is the lead topic. This is drawing a lot of interest," he said. The inflammatory remarks of a Columbia University professor, Nicholas DeGenova, who said he was wishing for "a million Mogadishus," have only heightened the interest, Mr. Firestone said.
The Senate Republican aide said no official method of measuring "ideological diversity" has been set, as the legislation has not been drafted yet. But the aide said such factors as religion and party registration could be used.
It wouldn't be the first time there's been a law banning ideological discrimination; the District of Columbia, for example, bars discrimination based on party affiliation as well as race, gender and sexual orientation.
A spokeswoman for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Debra Humphreys, said the forces pushing this are guilty of the same kind of "political correctness" they usually attack. The association represents 800 schools.
"On the one hand, they seem to be arguing against any stifling of ideological opinion on campus," Ms. Humphreys said. "On the other hand, they seem to want to hold campuses responsible for the private views — in many cases anti-Semitic or discriminatory — of their professors and students."
Mr. Firestone acknowledges that defining and enforcing "ideological diversity" could be tricky, but may be necessary. "If left to their own devices, universities aren't going to do this. They clearly need a push," he said."I'm not surprised they're skeptical, and I'm sure they'd resist an external effort. It'd be easier to get at it if they did it internally, like with a peer-review panel."
Individual universities are treading lightly around the subject for now, at least until formal legislation is introduced.
"Obviously, this is a matter that is very early in its evolution, too early for us to be able to comment on it substantively," a spokesman for New York University, John Beckman, said."We will be interested in watching how it evolves."
A Harvard University spokesman also declined to comment, citing the same reasons.