What started as a good idea to encourage universities to increase the available knowledge about the Middle East now may open the door to government censorship of college classrooms.
Congress is worried that at the University of Michigan and other campuses, federal dollars meant for Middle Eastern studies are actually advancing an anti-American, anti-Israeli agenda.
If that's true, it would be perfectly appropriate to kill the program. But the government's solution — placing federal snoops into campus classrooms to ensure "balanced discussions" — should be quickly abandoned.
The House voted to create a commission to monitor classroom content and is pressing the Senate to do the same. The Senate, however, should resist.
Following the September 11 attacks, the federal government gave universities, including U-M, $90 million to expand their once-neglected Middle Eastern programs. The hope was that it would help train more Arabic translators and analysts whose shortage contributed to the intelligence failures prior to the attacks.
But several prominent groups, including Campus Watch, now say the universities are using government funds to hire professors known for their anti-U.S. animus. The American Jewish Council charges that some Middle Eastern studies professors blame Israel for its conflict with Palestinians and hold U.S. foreign policy responsible for provoking terrorism.
In addition, many professors actively discourage Arabic studies students from working for the defense and intelligence services. "We don't want our students to be known as spies in training," insists Carol Bardenstein, a U-M assistant professor.
Clearly, this defeats the purpose of the funds, and the government is right to be concerned about the value of the program.
But calls for stronger congressional oversight are misguided. The House would establish an advisory board that would monitor Middle Eastern programs to ensure they "reflect diverse perspectives and a full range of views."
This tramples on academic freedom and probably won't work anyway. Universities have historically enjoyed greater autonomy than other public institutions precisely so they have the room to explore controversial ideas without fear of censorship or retribution from political authorities.
This does not mean that the government has an obligation to keep pouring money into programs it feels violate the public trust. If universities are failing to train crucial national security personnel, as the government intended, then lawmakers should simply withdraw the $90 million and contract with someone else to do the job.
This would put the universities on notice that they have to perform to qualify for public dollars, but without running roughshod over this country's longstanding commitment to academic freedom.
Defund Title VI?
By Martin Kramer
On Friday, the Detroit News ran a quirky editorial on HR3077. They're against the bill because they think the proposed advisory board would "place federal snoops into campus classrooms," and "monitor classroom content." (It would do neither.) Then the editorial gets interesting: "If universities are failing to train crucial national security personnel, as the government intended, then lawmakers should simply withdraw the $90 million [spent annually on Title VI] and contract with someone else to do the job. This would put the universities on notice that they have to perform to qualify for public dollars." If academics continue to resist an advisory board, it could prompt more concete proposals for defunding Title VI, in whole or in part. You have been warned.