Controversy surrounding the International Studies in Higher Education Act, HR 3077, has illuminated the continued importance of area studies both within Columbia University and the current academic climate.
HR 3077, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in September, was drafted by Congressman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) as a modification to Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Title VI provides institutes for regional studies with federal funding and support; Hoekstra's revision outlines various structural changes and proposes the establishment of an International Higher Education Advisory Board that will, according to the act, "make recommendations ... that will reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign language, and international affairs."
The proposed board will also "advise the Secretary and the Congress with respect to needs for expertise in government, the private sector, and education in order to enhance America's understanding of, and engagement in the world" (633.A1-2C).
Many academics are wary that the advisory board--which will be comprised of seven appointed members, two of whom must have national security responsibilities--will serve as a de facto censor that primarily targets Middle East institutes. Reacting to text that underscores the revision's attempt "to assist the national effort to educate and train citizens to participate in the efforts of homeland security," (2.A2.F) critics have called into question the act's stated objective of regulation.
Noting that federally funded regional institutes are already subject to routine examination, Middle East Institute Director Rashid Khalidi said "it's a canard that these departments are unsupervised ... a regular inquiry, scientific, is not a problem, but this kind of shrill partisan imposition is a problem."
The act's focus on increasing intellectual diversity within these institutes has also generated response from academics. In her November Presidential Address to the Middle East Studies Association, School of International and Public Affairs Dean Lisa Anderson asserted that "this plan ... is not about diversity, or even about truth, but about the conviction of conservative political activists that the American university community is insufficiently patriotic, or perhaps simply insufficiently conservative."
"Partisan politics has no business in government funding for education," said David Magier, the director of area studies and South and Southeast Asian studies librarian.
Although there are eight regional institutes on campus, all of which, with the exception of the Institute of Latin American Studies, currently receive funding through Title VI, the Middle East Institute is expected to be the focus of the advisory board.
"All the other institutes have not been so much in the firing line," said Volker Berghahn, director of the Institute for the Study of Europe and head of the Interregional Council, which assembles the directors of each regional institute. These institutes are all housed at SIPA and draw scholars from a wide assortment of departments to engage in formal teaching, particularly at the graduate level; to run enrichment programs for all Columbia affiliates; and to conduct research.
Although HR 3077 has yet to appear before the Senate, it has drawn attention to the resurgence of area studies, both at Columbia and within the larger academe.
Berghahn noted that the political bent of area studies programs is not new, as regional programs grew out of an awareness that the United States needed to enrich its understanding of the world.
"After the second World War, when this country became a major world power, there was a sense that this country was not prepared, intellectually, academically, to be a major power," he said. Title VI, he added, was the government's response to what it perceived as a national dearth of expertise.
Professor of International and Public Affairs Gary Okihiro, who also sits on the Interregional Council, said area studies have always been politically oriented. From their inception, they strove to "develop scholars, linguistic and otherwise, not just for cultural questions, but also for questions of rule," he said.
Although area studies fell out of vogue when discussions about globalization came to the foreground, Berghahn said they are receiving increased attention again.
"There is a national need that I think has been particularly important since Sept. 11--in order to survive in the word, you have to understand it," Magier said. "Everyone I know in area studies is interested in generating a generation of students that are savvy in their understanding of the world."
An increased interest in regional programs is particularly important at this University.
"Area studies are one of our real strengths at Columbia," said Jared Ingersoll, Slavic studies librarian. Indeed, many arms of the University, including its graduate schools, draw on the strength of its regional institutes.
"One of the reasons SIPA has such strong resources in international development studies, for example," Anderson wrote in an e-mail, "is because of the Institutes on Latin America, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Another example: Columbia was one of the first U.S. schools to recruit students from Central Asia--and we had those networks thanks to the Harriman Institute."
The University serves a key role in the larger world of area studies, as well.
"This is one of the only national institutions developing world collections," Magier said. "We look at how well the U.S. is doing in terms of preservation and presentation of these materials--where there are gaps, we work with other institutions to develop these and work to serve [for example] African studies in general, not just the Columbia piece."
It is unclear how HR 3077, which is scheduled to appear before the Senate within the next few months, would affect these diverse and critical programs.
"A lot depends on what the senate does," Khalidi said. "The only provision that any of us have a problem with is the imposition of a partisan advisory board that has an inquisitory nature."