Today, Feb. 3, the presidents of nearly every major private college or university in America will convene at the massive Hyatt Regency in Washington, D.C. In the heart of the nation's capitol, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has gathered for its annual meeting to discuss the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that will define the relationship between Columbia and the federal government for the next year.
This year, however, there is much more at stake than just financial aid. As the International Studies in Higher Education Act was working its way through the House, alarm bells went off in the academic world. Because of intense criticism of some Middle Eastern studies departments in the U.S. for seemingly anti-American viewpoints, a measure was inserted to create an advisory panel to oversee the funding of all area studies programs that train students in the culture, politics, and languages of specific world regions.
The advisory panel was originally to have seven members, all appointed by the president. It was proposed as a way to ensure that the federal funds, called Title VI grants, were being properly spent, and that programs funded by such grants provided "diverse perspectives" in their teaching. Playing the national security card, conservative critics such as Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institute and Daniel Pipes of Campus Watch took their long-standing grievances with the Middle East academia to Congress, decrying the field as anti-American.
Raising concerns of academic freedom, the American Council on Education, a higher education lobbying group was quick to respond, noting in talking points sent to members that "neither the national interest nor the development of knowledge would be served by requiring Title VI centers to read only material Kurtz finds acceptable." Finally, under heavy lobbying from institutions of higher education, including Columbia, the House agreed to create an advisory board, but one that explicitly would have no direct oversight capacity. Only three board members would be appointed by the president, with the other four coming from Congress. Moreover, the group would be there just to ensure funds are not misspent. With these changes and with all funding for higher education riding on the omnibus bill's passage, the ACE altered its position and supported the bill.
Many professors and scholars, however, are not reassured. Oddly, the new advisory group's limited official function of ensuring accountability would be largely superfluous. In an interview with the National Journal, Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, noted that "The monitoring is actually fairly elaborate now." In fact, not only is there intensive competition to receive Title VI grants, but those who get them must also submit annual reports and outcome data on a regular basis. There is already accountability. Proponents of the measure have not been convincing in arguing for the creation of a new advisory board, citing scanty anecdotal evidence.
Without an outright need for this new board, concerns about it are very well founded. Although stripped of most of its teeth, the advisory board would still have some nebulous power to promote programs that are in the "national interest," possibly creating a very public platform for the suppression of unpopular scholarship. While, obviously, training people fluent in foreign languages is a necessity for effective intelligence and national defense, it is difficult to determine the value of other forms of research. Considering the Bush administration's penchant for appointing ideologues and extremists, scholars have reason to be wary of the shape this board will take.
But academics are not the only ones who should be concerned. During the lead-up to Mao's takeover in China, distinguished scholars such as John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service warned of the impending collapse of Chiang Kai-Shek's government. After the fall of China they were blamed by many for diminishing American resolve and thus allowing the collapse of Chiang's government. Their careers were destroyed and the acceptable scholarship of East Asia became what Washington politicians wanted to hear. First observed by David Halberstam, by the time troubles started arising in Vietnam, the United States had been depleted of true experts on the area. An echo chamber was created that told the country its military strength and superiority would win out, that Ho Chi Minh was a Soviet tool lacking indigenous support, that the South Vietnamese were against him, and that the North Vietnamese could not hold out. All these factors created an ethos that led us deeper and deeper into war in Indochina.
The potential for politicizing Middle Eastern or any area studies poses, in my mind, a threat to national security. We have two options: we can provide support only for so-called pro-American scholarship or we can allow a free market of ideas to decide the truth. Some scholars will undoubtedly be critical of the United States and its allies. But even if we ultimately choose to reject their conclusions, it is vitally important that we understand their arguments. Of course we can debate how we want the world to be, but first we must understand how it actually is.
Zac Frank is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. The Lowdown runs alternate Tuesdays.