International studies programs at the University may be monitored more closely by the federal government as part of a bill to go before a House committee Thursday.
House Bill 3077 would create an advisory board to oversee federally funded foreign language and area studies courses. The University receives about $2 million a year through Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which funds the Latin American, Middle Eastern, Asian, Russian and Eastern European centers.
The 10-member Congressional Subcommittee on Select Edu-cation unanimously approved the bill Sept. 17. A vote from the Committee on Education and the Workforce, the last step before reaching the House floor, is expected during the next two weeks.
Opponents fear the legislation was brought about by conservative scholars who claim an anti-American bias is being taught in some programs and foresee their academic freedom being compromised.
Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan, denies these allegations.
"Academia is something that is always open to improvement, especially when there are federal tax dollars involved," Hoekstra said. "It is in our country's best interest to have students who are knowledgeable of the global environment and who are prepared and eager to enter the foreign service."
Hoekstra said he expects "broad support" from the committee this week.
Richard Lariviere, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the proposed advisory board could influence the University's curricular decisions.
"This is an attempt by a political faction to interfere with the free exchange of ideas," Lariviere said. "The bill proposes to ensure that all perspectives on international programs are represented. The question that has to be asked is what perspectives aren't being represented, and that discourse isn't anywhere in the bill."
About $98.5 million in grants to hundreds of universities were given out in the 2002 fiscal year through Title VI. Universities compete for money to fund distinguished faculty and research materials.
"The better we understand the world, the safer we'll be," said John Sunnygard, assistant director of the University's International Office. "My hope is that the bill will be what it says it is - something that supports international education."
William Shute, vice chancellor of federal relations for the UT System, said the bill is a reaction to Sept. 11 because some terrorists were in the country on student visas.
Shute said he does not want to see the advisory board try to influence professors' reading lists or class syllabi. UT is working in Washington, D.C., with other universities' international programs to limit the bill's effects, he said.
"The main concern is that there is a potential to dig so deep into the programmatic areas that they could try to influence the curriculum," Shute said. "Our Middle Eastern program has been very productive from an educational standpoint in understanding the Islamic world."
Representatives on the committee will be able to offer amendments before it goes before the entire House.
"We don't know the exact changes. However, we understand they will address some of the concerns many folks have raised about the board having enormous authority with no real checks," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. "We don't want it to become a censorship committee."
UT government professor Clement Henry said when he learned of the bill, he became suspicious. Henry teaches classes on topics such as the politics of oil and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The bill smells like a neoconservative idea targeted at Middle East studies," Henry said. "These people are not going to intimidate me, but I'm a senior professor."
Rep. Hoekstra maintains that the bill will not attempt to control the centers. Other government programs have similar oversight by outside parties, he said.
"We're not out here to promote fiefdoms that want to keep everything close to their vest," Hoekstra said. "Who wouldn't want to share their programs with the rest of the country with the intent of making them better?"