Some University of Washington professors are fearing for their academic freedom as a bill moves through the U.S. Senate that would create an advisory board overseeing international-studies programs at universities around the country.
If the bill passes, the seven centers at the Jackson School of International Studies that receive federal funding could be affected. The seven centers receive $3 million a year, about half of their annual income.
The federal government provides the money under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to develop student expertise in foreign areas for the purpose of national security. As demand for expertise in foreign regions has risen since the Sept. 11 attacks, so has scrutiny of international studies and the effectiveness of the Title VI program.
Critics say the programs the government pays for have become an ideological monopoly — one that is anti-U.S. foreign policy — and need an advisory board to ensure diversity of perspectives.
Under the amended version of the Higher Education Act, an advisory board would provide counsel and recommendations to the U.S. Secretary of Education and Congress on international education issues. The seven members would be appointed by the secretary, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate.
The advisory board would serve as a resource — it wouldn't have power to disseminate grants or regulate international studies, but it would be able to make recommendations to the Education secretary and Congress.
Professors say that definition is vague, and they are wary of political appointees intruding on intellectual freedom. A laundry list of organizations, including the American Council on Education and the American Civil Liberties Union, has written letters protesting the board's formation.
"The idea of creating a structure to monitor what Title VI does not only violates a sense of academic freedom on campuses but creates a stumbling block in operations that have been going on so smoothly for so long," said Anand Yang, director of the Jackson School.
At the UW, the federal funds provide fellowships for graduate students to study foreign languages and for outreach programs in the community and K-12 schools. For instance, every summer the European Studies center gives updates to community-college teachers, high-school teachers and local-government officials on the status of the European Union.
The federal money also supports faculty research and the development of new courses. Nationwide, the federal government spends about $90 million on the international-studies centers.
"Why fix it if it ain't broke?" Yang asks. "It has, for decades now, prepared America's most knowledgeable people about other regions of the world."
Proponents of the bill say the centers have abused the act's purpose: to train people to serve national security. The controversy bubbled up out of a debate over Middle East studies centers and criticism that they had become a de facto monopoly run by academics critical of U.S. foreign policy — a stance reflected in their curriculum, critics say. Those who support U.S. foreign policy are excluded from the club, they say.
"All of us could agree that it's the role of government to break up monopolies in our economic life," said studies-centers critic Martin Kramer, author of the book "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America."
"What happens when a monopoly is formed in intellectual life but is federally funded?" In particular, Kramer says, most Middle East studies centers are focused on the Arab world, but none focus on Israel.
International-studies professors at the UW say those accusations are false.
"There are a few people in the profession who have strong ideological positions, that's true," said Stephen Hanson, director of Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at the UW's Jackson School. "The question is whether in fact we have some kind of dogma at the university, and the answer is no. We have quite a number of faculty in our program who disagree with each other on U.S. policy. Some support it, some oppose it, and that's good. We want debate."
Critics also say the international-studies centers are not serving national security because graduates are not taking government jobs.
At the Middle East Center at the Jackson School, however, eight out of 19, or 42 percent, of the students in the past five years pursued government careers, including intelligence, military and State Department jobs, after graduation.
Ellis Goldberg, director of the Middle East Center, isn't concerned about the advisory board being a threat to academic freedom. His complaint is that those now criticizing international-studies programs would get to feed at the public trough.
"They are now going to be able to use federal dollars to carry out their side of this debate, and that strikes me as a waste of public taxpayer dollars," Goldberg said.
A House of Representatives budget analysis said the advisory board would cost less than 1 percent of overall funding, coming to $900,000 or less. As a point of comparison, each of the seven centers at the UW's Jackson School receives about $700,000.
Kramer warns that academics may be misreading the political and social map of the U.S. after Sept. 11.
"Ultimately, they rely on society's purpose, and they have to justify it. It's not enough to shout 'academic freedom'; that doesn't entitle you to a subsidy."
He also questions why the academic world is willing to take the federal government's money: "I haven't heard anyone say that this relationship with power and knowledge is corrupting."