In response to recently introduced legislation, students and faculty nationwide have begun to question whether Middle East studies programs are biased against the United States and Israel.
H.R. 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, was introduced to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last year on Sept. 11. If approved, the bill would create an International Advisory Board to "make recommendations that will promote the excellence of international education programs and result in the growth and development of such programs at the postsecondary education level that will reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign language and international affairs."
The board will consist of seven members, including three appointees of the secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and two representatives from national security agencies. The speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate will each appoint two members to the board with the recommendation of the majority and minority leaders of their respective chambers.
The House of Representatives passed H.R. 3077 unanimously in October and referred it to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The Senate has yet to take action on the bill.
"This bill has negative potential for universities," said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association and faculty member at the University of Arizona. "The powers of this advisory board are quite broad."
According to H.R. 3077, all government entities are "directed, to the extent permitted by law, to furnish such information, suggestions, estimates and statistics directly to the International Advisory Board, upon request made by the chairman."
Newhall said she is worried that the establishment of such a board could set a precedent allowing government organizations to investigate other areas of academia. She expressed her concern that the proposed board might be an investigative body disguised as an advisory committee.
Although public attention stirred by H.R. 3077 is focused on Middle East studies, the bill applies to all collegiate area studies programs, including African Studies Asian Studies and Latin American Studies.
Proponents of the bill state that it will ensure balance between different perspectives. On June 19, Hoover Fellow Stanley Kurtz testified before a House subcommittee and endorsed efforts to eliminate bias in this branch of education.
"In the long run, it would be best for the country if we had a thriving set of area studies programs that were well balanced on policy views and well funded," he said. "A major reformation of the American academy's area studies programs is necessary to bring about such a result."
Prof. Nezar AlSayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC-Berkeley, countered that H.R. 3077 could potentially stifle different points of view.
"This is an intolerant bill," he said. "Balance is achieved through academic research. We should maintain the integrity of universities. This is a McCarthyist bill."
Both Newhall and AlSayyad questioned the motives of those in support of the bill.
"It's not Middle East experts who are advocating this," AlSayyad said. "Many of them are not even based in the United States."
Many proponents might have political or foreign policy agendas that would be furthered by the bill's approval, he added.
"Legitimacy is derived from research," he said. "The advocates of this bill would like to get people more sympathetic to the Israeli position."
Those in opposition to H.R. 3077 has made a concerted effort to maintain a bipartisan stance.
"Both liberals and conservatives agree with the need for academic freedom," AlSayyad added. "It's fundamentally a libertarian position."
Newhall said that some of the bill's promoters might be making inaccurate generalizations about Middle East studies programs.
"I think that there are a lot of false accusations and misrepresentations," she said. "People need to look at the centers themselves. They provide valuable services."
AlSayyad said he hopes the Senate will kill the bill. He added that he has full faith that the public will recognize the harm done to free expression and urge a quick repeal if H.R. 3077 is approved.