A U.S. House of Representatives committee unanimously approved legislation on Thursday that would give a federal advisory board oversight over federally financed international-studies programs at American colleges.
The Republican leaders of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, however, agreed to add language to the bill (HR 3077) restricting the board from "mandating, directing, or controlling" the curriculum of college foreign-language and area-studies programs, which are supported under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
The addition of the prohibition came as a great relief to college lobbyists, who have feared that the advisory board was being created to interfere with curricular decisions on their campuses. Republican lawmakers decided to create an advisory board after hearing complaints from conservative scholars that some of the centers supported by these programs purvey an "anti-American" bias.
"This is a significant improvement," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "The changes will help ensure that the advisory committee is in fact an advisory committee, and not a censorship committee."
College lobbyists were also pleased that the committee's leaders agreed to pare back the activities that the board could undertake.
For example, the original bill gave the board the authority to "annually monitor, apprise, and evaluate the activities of grant recipients," including conducting "an evaluation of the performance of the grantees."
The bill that the committee approved on Thursday does not include that language. Instead, it directs the board to "monitor, apprise, and evaluate a sample of activities" supported by Title VI, with the goal of "providing recommendations for improvement of the programs."
Despite the improvements, some college officials said they still fear that the advisory board could be used to intimidate university scholars to toe an ideological line. "The advisory board could easily be hijacked by those who have a political ax to grind and become a vehicle for an inquisition," said Gilbert W. Merkx, vice provost for international affairs at Duke University.
Also on Thursday, the House committee approved a bill (HR 3076) that would renew several federal programs that provide fellowships for graduate students.
College lobbyists applauded the committee leaders for removing a provision in the bill that would have required the secretary of education to make it a priority to award Jacob K. Javits fellowships to students who are enrolled in graduate courses in advanced linguistics and courses that prepare teachers to instruct students with limited English proficiency.
Javits fellowships go to students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences whom the Education Department deems worthy of government support because of their academic performance and financial need. Supporters of the Javits program had fought the provision, saying that adding extra requirements would alter the basic purpose of the program.
The two bills are expected to be debated on the House floor in the next several weeks. The Senate, however, is not expected to take them up until Congress returns next year from its winter recess