Legislation headed to the U.S. Senate would create an advisory board to monitor universities' international studies programs
Professors of international studies are upset about a bill in Congress that they say threatens academic freedom in the name of national security.
The proposal, which passed the House this fall on voice vote, would create an advisory board of political appointees to keep tabs on federally financed international studies programs at colleges and universities. The bill could affect any university, including those in Oregon, that requests funding under Title VI of the higher education act.
"This vehicle could be a disaster for American education," said Gilbert Merkx, vice provost for international affairs at Duke University. He and others are concerned that the board will politicize decisions regarding which universities receive financial support for their research.
Critics say the oversight is necessary to restore ideological balance in the programs, which were created by the federal government in 1958 to develop expert knowledge about regions of the world. The programs are charged with training specialists for government, industry and education in areas as diverse as China's economy, Africa's cultures and languages such as Dari and Pashto.
Opponents of the board, including groups that represent the majority of U.S. colleges and universities and the American Association of University Professors, say the legislation opens the door for politics to influence what and how professors teach.
Stanley Kurtz of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, proposed the advisory board to a House committee in June. Kurtz testified that the programs, especially those that focus on the Middle East, are biased against U.S. foreign policy and actively discourage students from working for the federal government. Three months after Kurtz testified, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., introduced a bill on Sept. 11 to set up such a board.
The bill charges the seven-member board with advising the secretary of education and Congress on ways to improve international studies to better meet national security needs and to encourage students to work for the government.
The education secretary, a Cabinet member, would appoint three members to the board -- two of whom must represent agencies responsible for national security, such as the Department of Homeland Security. The House speaker and Senate president pro tem each would appoint two members, upon the recommendation of the majority and minority leaders in each chamber.
"It will be a creature of the administration, whichever administration it is," said Jon Mandaville, a Porrtland State University history professor.
Critics of international studies programs have primarily targeted national resource centers, located at universities such as Duke and the University of Washington, where scholars develop knowledge of specific regions of the world. UW has seven national resource centers, the second-largest concentration in the nation. Oregon has none.
The board could affect any university that seeks funding under Title VI of the higher education act. Title VI, which Congress funded at $95 million in 2003, is among the largest financial supporters of international studies in the nation.
The money supports undergraduate courses, graduate student fellowships, training for elementary and high school language teachers, and public forums, among other programs. Graduates work in academia, international business and for human rights organizations.
Examples of Title VI funding in Oregon:
The University of Oregon's Center for Applied Second Language Studies, which develops tools for language teachers, won a four-year, $1.4 million Title VI grant in 2001.
Richard Steers, a UO professor of management and former vice provost for international affairs, received about $250,000 under Title VI in the late 1990s to help educate business faculty about the Pacific Rim through study and travel. The faculty, in turn, incorporated what they learned into courses.
A consortium for Southeast Asian studies, composed of faculty at UO, UW and the University of British Columbia, was a national resource center from 1988 through the late 1990s.
UO faculty are seeking $160,000 under Title VI to enhance African studies.
At Oregon State University, Title VI grants totaling $340,000 support new degree programs in international eco-tourism and international business at the Cascades Campus in Bend.
PSU's Middle East Studies Center once was a national resource center but no longer has that designation. The center received Title VI money from the early 1960s to 1981 and smaller grants in the 1990s. But university budget cuts and other factors left the center unable to compete for funds, Mandaville said. A core faculty from various departments continue to teach Middle East-related courses.
Critics such as Kurtz and Daniel Pipes, a Middle East scholar who launched a Web site that monitors Middle East studies departments for anti-American bias, have pushed for the advisory board because they say the need exists to ensure that international studies programs include diverse perspectives, particularly when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Ideological balance has become increasingly important, they say, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks intensified the government's need for graduates who are experts in foreign languages and international affairs.
"Unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated," Kurtz testified to a House committee.
Opponents say the programs do offer diverse perspectives, but that balance isn't what critics want.
"What they primarily mean is that the conservative -- the Republican -- points of view need to be better represented," said Anand Yang, director of UW's Jackson School of International Studies.
The bill to create the board lost teeth in House committees, where language was inserted to prohibit the board from controlling curriculum at individual universities. Hoekstra, the bill's author, said in a news release that it "updates the programs under Title VI . . . to reflect our national security needs in the post-Sept. 11 era."
The Senate is expected to take up the bill after Congress reconvenes in January. Opponents say the proposal remains a threat because the board could intimidate or penalize scholars whose work does not align with the views of a given administration. The bill includes an open-ended provision that authorizes the board to obtain information from any federal agency.
"If they wanted to get various information collected about the activities of a faculty member associated with a center that receives a grant, they could ask the CIA or the FBI to do it," said Duke University's Merkx. "In the McCarthy period, this is exactly what happened."
Universities that receive Title VI grants already account to the government for how they spend the money and what they achieve. UW's Yang said that he doesn't object to further measures of the effectiveness of Title VI programs but that the proposed board isn't the way.
"(These programs) have produced all the people who are most knowledgeable about all the regions of the world, whether it's Afghanistan or Iraq," Yang said.
"The reason why that has happened is because people have been able to pursue their studies in universities where there is complete academic freedom, and they can do with their education what they want."