The House of Representatives recently passed a bill designed to ensure that a wide range of political and historical views are presented by university centers funded by the Department of Education's Title VI grants. The bill, which will now be debated in the Senate, would create an advisory board that will report to Congress and to the Secretary of Education on the effectiveness of Title VI grants and on the state of intellectual diversity at Title VI centers. Since most classroom activity covered by Title VI grants falls in the non-politicized realm of foreign language instruction, the advisory board would mostly evaluate Title VI centers' public outreach programs, such as seminars for school teachers on various world events. Duke administrators expressed enthusiastic support for the proposed reform, welcoming it as a valuable step forward in fulfilling their commitment to intellectual diversity.
And if you believe that, then I have a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you. In fact, Duke administrators reacted to the proposed Title VI reform by prophesizing about its apocalyptic consequences like panicked Jeremiahs forewarning of Jerusalem's impending doom. Administrators denounced the advisory board as a dangerous threat to academic freedom and rejected the entire reform effort as an insidious attempt by intolerant neo-cons to subordinate professors to government diktats.
Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant to the Coalition for International Education, warned that the proposed advisory board would subject faculty members to ideological investigations, while Gilbert Merkx, Duke's vice provost for international affairs, invoked a similar specter of McCarthyite witch hunts. John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, magnanimously conceded the government's right to evaluate programs that it itself funds right before he denounced the government's proposal to do exactly that. "The government has the right, if it gives money for a program, to have some expectation about how that money is spent," he said. "But it's different when the government puts itself in a position where it could possibly define a curriculum or politicize the process of review of that program."
And will this reform really allow the government to dictate curricula and mandate rigid ideological conformity? One would have to guess that it will not, since the bill unambiguously forbids this scenario by specifying that the board will not be authorized to "mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction." But the simple fact that their nightmare scenario is explicitly prohibited seems to have had few ameliorating effects on administrators' fears.
What really frets our frightened friends is that the board will be charged with reporting on the state of intellectual diversity at Title VI centers. The bill's precise wording calls on the board's reports to assure that grant recipients' activities "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views" on world issues. Most residents of planet Earth would interpret this call for diverse views as a preference for diverse views, but in the Orwellian parallel universe inhabited by Duke administrators, a call for diverse views is tantamount to a demand for a modern day inquisition. In reality, since there is probably not a single university program administrator in America that claims that his or her program does not embrace intellectual diversity, no one should have anything to fear from a simple evaluation by an advisory board.
Dr. Merkx's warnings on this issue have been particularly apoplectic, complete with derisive caricatures of the reform's supporters as "pro-Israeli hawks" and members of "extreme conservative organizations." What he failed to mention is that the reform bill was unanimously approved in two bipartisan congressional committees and was passed in the full House of Representatives by an overwhelming bipartisan majority on a simple voice vote. Who knew the Democratic Party has been so thoroughly infiltrated by neo-conservative Zionist warmongers?
One of Dr. Merkx's main criticisms concerned the advisory board's composition. He worried that its evaluations will "not be made by academics and area experts but by people from national intelligence agencies…That's just not how you do it." This critique would have been more convincing if Dr. Merkx hadn't argued the precisely opposite viewpoint in his own congressional testimony on Title VI reform. In front of a congressional committee, he declared
"If there is to be a review panel, I think it should be composed of the clients of the program, not of political appointees. I would recommend that there be an interagency group, which would include representatives of the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA, other agencies, perhaps Homeland Security, who are the kinds of agencies that hire the people with the skills that we produce."
So would Dr. Merkx prefer that the board be comprised or not be comprised of representatives of intelligence agencies and other governmental bodies? Apparently, the answer depends upon what day you ask him.
Unsurprisingly, The Chronicle coughed up a befuddled editorial supporting the administrators' position. The paper denounced the advisory board, alleging that it will "have the power to decide which programs will receive special subsidies." The Chronicle thus displayed its total ignorance of the most basic aspects of this reform, as the board will not have the authority to make any funding decisions at all; its power will be limited to making recommendations to Congress and to the Secretary of Education.
But The Chronicle never allows its mere total incomprehension of an issue to hinder its opinion-making. Like a mentally-challenged Energizer bunny, The Chronicle soldiered on, predicting that the advisory board would abuse its non-existent funding powers in order to defund "those courses judged to be unpatriotic." It seems pretty unlikely that the board would condemn the kind of foreign language instruction funded by Title VI grants as "unpatriotic." And besides, educational outreach programs, which would be the main focus of the advisory board's activity, would ipso facto violate the board's call for intellectual diversity if they were conducted from a strictly pro-American standpoint. How The Chronicle infers a patriotic litmus test from the bill's appeal for student exposure to "diverse perspectives and the full range of views" seems like a great topic for another Chronicle editorial.
Readers could not have expected The Chronicle's editorial page to come out against the administration on a major issue like Title VI reform. This year's editorial page writers, in their relationship to Duke President Nan Keohane, resemble a group of cooing Politburo members jealousy jostling among themselves to determine who can declare the most obsequious praise for their Dear Leader. The Chronicle already ushered in Nan's final year as Duke President by proposing that entire areas of campus be renamed in her honor. What can its writers possibly do to top that emission once the ultimate moment arrives marking the end of Nan's tenure—demand that her seraphic profile be chiseled into Mt. Rushmore? Readers were about as likely to see a Chronicle editorial defying Duke administrators and standing up for intellectual diversity as they were to see the Cameron Crazies turn up en-masse at a ladies' golf tournament.
The debate over Title VI reform really boils down to two simple questions: Does the government have the right to express a preference for intellectually diverse centers when deciding which programs it will subsidize with taxpayers' money, and if so, is it unreasonable for the government to evaluate Title VI centers in order to determine which centers are intellectually diverse? The answers are obvious enough to make the questions seem rhetorical.
To sum up, Title VI reform is nothing to fear. It represents a common-sense attempt by the government to evaluate the effectiveness of its own programs. Duke administrators are only able to argue against the proposed reforms by employing the kind of doublespeak in which a prohibition on government control of curricula is presented as an attack on academic freedom, while a call for the consideration of a broad range of views is interpreted as a summons for McCarthyite ideological persecution. Duke administrators are no doubt speaking in good faith when they proclaim their commitment to ideological diversity—it's just any proposal to actually ensure its existence that beckons their resistance.