Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act (H.R. 3077)—the Title VI fix that will establish an advisory board for the federal program that subsidizes Middle Eastern (and other area) studies in American universities. The bill, having won overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, now goes to the Senate. Sandstorm has already underlined the bill's importance, and I know that many readers wrote to its author, Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan) in support of it. But the road is still long.
The higher education lobby, led by the American Council on Education (ACE), remains determined to gut the bill. Never mind that the board will be advisory, not supervisory. Never mind that the bill doesn't allow the board "to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction." ACE just doesn't like the idea of anyone in Washington watching what academics do, even with tax dollars. Here is ACE's latest, in a letter issued on the day the bill sailed through the House:
We believe the current legislation leaves open the possibility that the Advisory Board could intrude into the academic conduct and content of higher education and could impinge on institutional decisions about curriculum and activities. Indeed, the powers vested in the proposed Advisory Board make it more of an investigative, rather than an advisory, body.
This is so bald a misconstrual of the bill that I dare to call it a lie. The board has no formal investigative powers. It cannot subpoena witnesses or hold anyone in contempt. Only government departments and agencies are obliged by law to provide information to the board, presumably so that it can determine whether the program is meeting the manpower needs of any agency of government. (My guess: it isn't.) The law would enjoin the board to "monitor" the activities of Title VI. That's an essential function: how else is the board to make intelligent recommendations? There is also a provision for public hearings, so that the many stakeholders and constituencies can make their voices heard. The board can also commission research on Title VI—something the Department of Education has done every decade anyway. But the board has no investigative "powers" at its disposal.
What ACE really wants Congress to do is to put out the eyes and cut off the ears of the board before its birth, so that it will have to rely on the demonstrably misleading "testimony" offered up by the lobby. And so ACE tries to scare up the ghost of McCarthyism by calling the board "investigative." It's a cheap trick, and it won't work: the legislators are a lot smarter than most professors and their lobbyists seem to think.
I was delighted to see a liberal Democrat and civil libertarian rise on the House floor to endorse the idea of the board. Representative Howard L. Berman of California, a man wise in the ways of foreign affairs, who has been described as a "libertarian-leaning liberal," put his finger on the problem. It's this: as it stands, taxpayers are being ripped off by university programs that serve no national interest. Academic scammers are the problem; the board is the solution. This Sandstorm entry concludes with Representative Berman's remarks:
I am encouraged that the creation of this Advisory Board will help redress a problem which is a great concern of mine, namely, the lack of balance, and indeed the anti-American bias that pervades Title VI- funded Middle East studies programs in particular. To the extent that it advances the national interest to commit taxpayer funds to institutions of higher education for the purpose of fostering expertise with regard to key regions of the world—and I would emphatically affirm that it does—then surely it is troubling when evidence suggests that many of the Middle East regional studies grantees are committed to a narrow point of view at odds with our national interest, a point of view that questions the validity of advancing American ideals of democracy and the rule of law around the world, and in the Middle East in particular.
The Advisory Board's oversight function does not impinge on the academic freedom that is and must be enjoyed by our institutions of higher education. In establishing the board, we are doing no more than exercising our responsibility to ensure that the Federal funds we authorize and appropriate are expended properly.
Give Representative Berman a slap on the back. His email is Howard.Berman@mail.house.gov
MESA Footnote. Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), spreads the lie, calling the advisory board an "investigative body rather than an advisory group." And if that doesn't stir the sleeping dogs of academe, she has another whopper: the bill "will establish a precedent for future legislation directed at any field, discipline, or professional school in any and all universities."
Hardly. There aren't too many disciplines that so vigorously suck the taxpayer's teat as Middle Eastern studies, and it would be hard to find another field as intolerant of intellectual diversity. It's the combination that is both unique and insufferable.
When the MESA mandarins huddle in Anchorage, Alaska, in their annual meeting next week, they would do well to ponder how their unchecked excesses finally prodded Washington into action. They made it easy. And if they really fear "investigation," here is free advice from the Sandstorm advisory board: Get off the federal dole. Float undisturbed in your post-orientalist bubble while more practical people use the resources to build credible alternatives.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Title VI will cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars over the next five years. It's possible to work miracles with that much money. The task of the advisory board will be to make sure they happen.