The UW's Jackson School of International Studies is celebrating record federal grants for international-studies programs. Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that would give the government greater oversight over centers that receive such funds.
The bill, HR 3077, placed on the House of Representatives' calendar last week, would revise provisions and reauthorize appropriations for Title VI, which funds National Resource Centers (NRCs). The NRC program provides grants to institutions of higher education to establish, strengthen and operate language and area-studies centers.
The most controversial portion of the bill would establish an independent International Education Advisory Board to advise Congress and the secretary of education on Title VI programs in relation to national needs in homeland security, international education, international affairs and foreign-language training. The proposed board has not been welcomed by many academics.
"I personally feel such an oversight board is totally unnecessary," said Stephen Hanson, director of the UW's Russia, East European and Central Asian Studies Center (REECAS). "The function of a university is for people to be free to say whatever they want."
Responding to these concerns, representatives added language to the bill restricting the board from "mandating, directing or controlling" the curriculum of programs supported by Title VI. However, to some scholars' dismay, the proposal still directs the board to "monitor, apprise and evaluate a sample of activities," with the purpose of "providing recommendations for improvement of the programs."
"Even though some of the teeth have been removed from the original language … still the idea of having an advisory board causes a certain amount of anxiety," said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School.
Critics of NRCs applaud the idea of an overseeing board, saying the centers are anti-American and support extreme and one-sided critiques of U.S. foreign policy. Those who run the centers disagree.
"What looks like a critique is really just trying to look harder at certain policies," said Hanson. "I don't think it's left or right. I think it's good education."
Yang said that universities tend to be more liberal places but said there are people of all political thoughts in NRCs.
"On the whole, NRCs are remarkably balanced in every respect, in terms of disciplines and in terms of political views expressed," said Yang.
The impending legislation comes in the wake of great success by UW in acquiring Title VI funds in a national competition over the summer. The UW received almost $3.5 million, compared to $2.9 million last year. This includes NRC funds and the related Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS).
"To be an NRC the University needs to sponsor, on its own, a first-rate program in language, literature, civilization and social sciences for a particular region of the world," explained Ellis Goldberg, who directs the UW Middle East Center.
Many of the UW's centers put in the best performance of their history over the summer. The Middle East Center emerged from the competition as the fourth-best funded of 17 Middle East centers, the highest ranking achieved in almost 30 years. REECAS received 144 of 155 points in the scoring process, about 10 points higher than in the last cycle.
In total, seven UW centers achieved renewed NRC status, one less than the previous year. UC-Berkeley and University of Wisconsin-Madison rank ahead of UW with eight centers each –– no other institution has seven. The centers will be funded for three years, after which another competition will be held.
In a report from Yang to Vice Provost Steve Olswang, Yang pointed out that the awards not only benefit the Jackson School. Because of the centers' reliance on diversity, the funds are distributed to faculty and units in other departments. For example, more than $1 million in FLAS awards went to other units in the College of Arts and Sciences and other schools and colleges last year.
In addition, NRC faculty point out that the centers' outreach programs benefit entire regions. The Middle East Center has plans to strengthen ties with colleagues in Turkey, Iran, Israel and the Arab world, as well as broadening outreach in the local K-12 schools. REECAS' programs include teaching elementary teachers traditional Kazakh songs, sponsoring lectures on human trafficking and hosting Russian composers who visit UW.
"We bring in speakers to the region that otherwise would not have come to the Northwest and we are sharing them," said Hanson. "We take seriously the responsibility to reach out for people in a large area and as far north as Alaska."