"Nothing in this title shall be construed to authorize the International Advisory Board to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction."
The above sentence is apparently very difficult for academics to understand. It comes from a section of federal legislation — H.R. 3077, Section 633(b) — that has passed the House and is now before the Senate. The bill would establish an advisory board over the portion of government funds (approximately $90 million in 2004) sent to select American universities for international studies.
These funds, called Title VI of the Higher Education Act, go to "area studies" programs at National Resource Centers (NRCs) that study different parts of the world. Each of the seventeen Middle East NRCs receives about $500,000 annually. This money is allocated with the understanding that, by fostering expertise in the various regions of the world, they further U.S. national security.
Strangely, some of the Middle Eastern studies academics who receive these funds seem unable to comprehend the nature of the proposed board:
Juan Cole, professor of the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan: "The main goal of this legislation is to impose an ideological agenda on university teaching, research and writing about issues like the Middle East. The point of the committee is to warp academic study and ensure that independent researchers are not allowed to be heard."
Nezar AlSayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley: The bill is "intervention in what faculty members do and it is an attempt to silence those who criticize the government."
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said chair at Columbia University: "This legislation represents the thin end of the wedge for political interference with the curriculum. It is meant to provide a highly partisan, ideological litmus test for academics."
Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle Eastern Studies Association: The law creates "an investigative body" that will "establish a precedent for future legislation directed at any field, discipline, or professional school in any and all universities."
All of these statements — and many others like them by Middle East specialists — are false. Ignoring the clear, unambiguous language of the legislation quoted above, Middle East specialists haul in extraneous issues of ideological agenda, partisanship, litmus testing, and precedents. Consider the facts behind these assertions:
Ideological Agenda? To claim an ideological agenda is behind the legislation is rich, considering that the necessity of the advisory board arises because of the blatant ideological bias prevalent in Middle Eastern studies. In June 2003, Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution showed the House Subcommittee on Select Education that area-studies faculty, and Middle East specialists particular, are dominated by a bias against American foreign policy and actively discourage government service. So convincing were Kurtz's arguments that the House — Democrats and Republicans alike — passed the bill unanimously. Some ideological agenda.
Attempt to silence dissent? The academy's rhetoric focuses on the red herring that H.R. 3077 gags professors. It misses the key point that the proposed board is advisory, not supervisory, meaning it has no power to implement policy. It can only recommend changes to Congress and the secretary of education. In fact, throughout his testimony, Kurtz advocated increased debate. For Kurtz, it is central that the legislation not exclude any viewpoint. "The board simply encourages the inclusion of a wide range of views — something that is not now the case."
Highly partisan, ideological litmus test? H.R. 3077 establishes a seven-member board, of which two members are appointed by the president pro-tem of the Senate, two by the speaker of the House, all with required recommendation of minority and majority party leadership, and three by the secretary of education, two of them from agencies with national-security responsibilities. Such a painstakingly bipartisan advisory board cannot serve as a "highly partisan, ideological litmus test." It was Howard Berman, a liberal Democrat from California, who most praised the advisory board on the House floor: "I am encouraged that the creation of this Advisory Board will help redress a problem which is a great concern of mine, namely, the lack of balance...that pervades Title VI-funded Middle East studies programs in particular."
Without precedent? Hardly. Title VI once had a board, and an effective one. Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former director of the Title VI programs, explains: "The old board conducted surveys that effectively monitored the functioning of the Title VI program." He found the board "an invaluable tool" helping him to honor congressional intent and believes "it was a mistake to disband it, and establishing a new one is a necessity."
In launching a campaign of disinformation regarding a fairly simple, bipartisan piece of legislation, Middle East academics have betrayed their own principles of research and the search for truth. Whether a Title VI advisory board can truly help to heal the rot in Middle East studies remains debatable. It may be that more drastic measures — such as defunding the program in favor of creating new centers focused on terrorism — are needed.
But whatever one thinks of the board's creation, it is shameful that academia creates an alternative reality rather than debating the issue on its merits.