Even though many lawmakers agree that the September 11 terrorist attacks exposed a dire need for better training in certain foreign languages, some scholars are fighting a government effort to pump more money into language programs that federal officials say are key to U.S. security interests.
At issue is the National Security Education Program, which has been awarding grants through the Department of Defense since 1994 but has been criticized by some language and area-studies professors since its inception. They say NSEP puts grant recipients, many of whom study abroad, in danger through their association with the Department of Defense and by requiring that they make a good faith effort to work for security-related government agencies after graduation.
Now, with Congress taking a renewed interest in NSEP following September 11 -- one proposal would almost double the program's $8-million budget by 2004 -- some scholars who specialize in the Middle East and Africa have revived a longstanding boycott of the program.
In April, the Middle East Studies Association of North America approved a harsh statement at its board meeting, voicing concerns over the National Flagship Language Initiative, a new pilot program of NSEP. The new program creates centers on college campuses that are designed to significantly increase the number of highly proficient speakers of languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, and Persian, among others.
In the statement urging association members to avoid seeking or accepting funds from the new pilot program, the association said, "A government-funded program that emphasized cooperation between the U.S. academy and government agencies responsible for intelligence and defense will increase the difficulties and dangers of such academic activities, and may foster the already widespread impression that academic researchers from the United States are directly involved in government activities."
Opposition to NSEP by scholars is nothing new. The African-, Latin American-, and Middle East-studies associations all agreed to boycott the language program soon after it was created by Congress in 1991. While many hardliners in the associations have stood firmly against NSEP, going so far as to suggest that students seeking funds for foreign study look elsewhere, other scholars have continued to participate and pursued grants from the National Flagship Language Initiative.
The Missing Colleges
Whether the boycott has had an impact on the new language program so far is unclear. Critics of the boycott say it is difficult to know, for instance, how many top-ranked institutions would have applied for funds if not for the ban.
Still, when the grants for the new language program were announced in July, some institutions well-known for their expertise in Arabic, such as Georgetown and Harvard Universities, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, were noticeably missing from the list of grant recipients. Michigan scholars had been approached by program officials last fall about applying for one of the new grants, but Alexander D. Knysh, the chairman of the Near Eastern-studies department at Michigan, said the university's Arabists had some reservations about accepting funds from the program.
Institutions find that support for the boycott can differ from department to department. For instance, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is currently taking part in a grant promoting the study of security in South Asia, according to Earl D. Kellogg, the university's associate provost for international affairs. However, he says, that the institution's Center for African Studies does not publicize individual grants for its students.
Richard D. Brecht, director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland at College Park, which helped choose the grant recipients, said that despite the opposition from some scholars there were still about 20 applications for the awards. The first round of grants in the new program were awarded to Brigham Young University, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus, and the University of Washington. The grants will pay for language programs focusing on Arabic, Chinese, and Korean.
Critics of the boycott suggest that its real motive is opposition to American foreign policy, and not concern over student safety. "It has everything to do with self-important professors who pose as guardians of the radical, third world-ist flame of the 1960s," says Martin S. Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: the Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001), and editor of The Middle East Quarterly.
Another scholar who opposes the ban, Norman J. Peterson, director of international programs at Montana State University at Bozeman, notes that U.S. law bans the use of NSEP funds for intelligence gathering. "I just don't think there is a problem here," he says.
"The people who tend to be suspicious about U.S. students coming under NSEP auspices are probably suspicious about all Americans."
The strength of the boycott by the associations may be tested soon, critics say, as Congress takes up a proposal to dedicate millions of new dollars to the program. Rep. Tim Roemer, Democrat of Indiana, has introduced a bill that would authorize an increase in NSEP's budget to $15-million in the 2004 fiscal year, up from what lobbyists predict will be $8-million in 2003, and expand the program to permanently establish the new National Flagship Language Initiative. While $15-million may not seem like a large sum for an academic grant, it is substantial for foreign-language study.
A Program for Spies?
More than 2,400 undergraduate and graduate students have received NSEP grants since the awards were first made in 1994. In addition, more than $18-million has been awarded to colleges for language training through the program. But for years, college lobbyists have suggested that NSEP be moved to the Education Department -- which administers similar grants through the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships Program -- out of concern that students receiving funds from the Defense Department could be viewed as government agents or spies.
"You might as well paint a bull's eye on them," says Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education.
Indeed, some scholars say that institutions that accept funds through NSEP unwittingly put their students in danger. "When people from the Department of Defense or the intelligence community decide who gets it and who doesn't, that's a red flag for people in foreign countries," says Fred M. Donner, chairman of the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago, who supports the boycott. "The assumption is that there's an unspoken quid pro quo."
But Robert O. Slater, NSEP's director, says very few students have encountered problems because of their association with the grant program. The definition of the security-related government agencies where students work is broad, and, in addition to obvious posts in places like the Central Intelligence Agency, students can obtain jobs in other places like the White House office of Science and Technology Policy or the Senate Finance Committee.
"Over the last seven or eight years, there have been only a few isolated incidents," Mr. Slater says, noting that he only knows of problems when students alert his office. However, most program supporters note that most any American working in certain parts of the world may run into similar problems -- regardless of sources of funds.
Staunch opponents of NSEP have suggested that their students seek alternatives to the grants. Many of them have turned to funds that are available from the Education Department through its National Foreign Language Center institutional grants.
William G. Martin, an African-studies scholar at the State University of New York at Binghamton, says that he and other members of the African Studies Association have even chosen to steer clear of projects related to NSEP grants.
"Some of us will not be part of projects which are funded by the Department of Defense or the CIA," he says.
Scholars who have chosen to ignore the boycott say they have had great success with the program.
Montana State, for example, joined with the University of Washington at Seattle; Al Akhawayn University, in Morocco; and several other institutions in sharing a $182,000 NSEP grant to create an Arabic-studies curriculum for students in remote parts of the country.
Students spend their first year in classes taught via videotape by faculty members at the Middle East Center at the University of Washington. Native Arabic teaching assistants supplement the video lectures. For their second year of the program, students attend Al Akhawayn.
For his part, Mr. Peterson at Montana State says he hasn't experienced any negative backlash by ignoring the boycott, noting that the university was recently recognized by the Institute of International Education for its work.
"I think it's really quite isolated in a few of the area-studies associations, and a few faculty members who have been very vocal," he says.
But other scholars who have chosen to disregard the boycott have felt a chill from some of their colleagues. Antonia Y.F. Schleicher, director of the National African Language Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says she has received a cold shoulder from some African-studies scholars after she accepted a NSEP grant to develop materials for instructing African languages that aren't commonly taught. She says that the boycott has, in effect, threatened her academic freedom.
"How do I endanger somebody's life by writing a book?" she asks. "We are punishing ourselves by saying that we are boycotting a program that is supposed to help us."