Duke & UNC Middle East Studies Face Major Threat from Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education, headed by Betsy DeVos, threatened to withdraw funding for the consortium ( Image )

The U.S. Department of Education, headed by Betsy DeVos, threatened to withdraw funding for the consortium (Image)


In an August letter, published last week, the US Department of Education threatened to withdraw future funding for the Duke - UNC Chapel Hill Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES). In 2018, the consortium received a four-year Title VI annual grant of $235,000 from the Secretary of Education. The only condition of such grants is that the recipient proves to be a “national resource” for instruction in foreign languages and fields necessary for understanding the regions where those languages are commonly spoken. The government is overstepping by trying to regulate the ideological content of university programs, even in the interest of national security.

The letter, authored by Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King, highlights a list of perceived shortcomings of CMES that may disqualify it from being considered a National Resource Center. Among these is its “considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities” with its tendency to focus only on the positive aspects of Islam but not of Christianity or Judaism. King also criticizes the relatively low enrollment rates in Middle East language courses and low percentage of graduates working in government positions, suggesting a failure of CMES to meet the Department of Education’s goal to prepare students to “advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.”

Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at UNC, responded to the Department’s letter on September 20th defending the activities of CMES. That same day, according to a recent article from the Duke Chronicle, a Duke faculty member was informed that CMES had in fact received funding for the 2019-2020 school year, despite the concerns raised by the Department of Education. Going forward, it seems likely that CMES will retain its funding, given that Magnuson has expressed his commitment to work with the Department of Education and his intent to establish an advisory board to review all CMES activities. 

However, it is a distinct possibility that this situation is just a precursor for further attempts by the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education to further meddle with universities and programs that publicize ideas counter to their ideology. Critics of the administration’s move believe that this is a severe threat to academic freedom and that the government, not UNC and Duke, is actually the one guilty of advancing ideological priorities. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) accused the Trump administration of being motivated by political reasons and an anti-Muslim bias. Similarly, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) claimed that the administration is trying to “micromanage” Title VI activities.

The concerns raised by these groups are mostly justified. It is a slippery slope for the government to threaten withholding grant money in order to influence curricula. If this kind of government interference in education becomes the new norm, it could have potentially disastrous consequences and could limit academic freedom and a well-rounded education.

While the government may be correct in asserting that universities, including UNC and Duke, tend to have ideological biases, cutting off funding is not the proper remedy to this problem. University bias should not be combated with government micromanagement. It limits academic freedom and sets a dangerous precedent for government involvement in education.

However, there is merit to some of the Department of Education’s complaints as well. The investigation into CMES began after they held a conference on Gaza that from which arose accusations of anti-semitic rhetoric from Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar. Even though the conference only used about $200 of taxpayer money, after budgeting $5,000, it is reasonable for the Department of Education to be frustrated with such a controversy arising from a publicly funded event. It is also fair to expect CMES to meet government standards of graduate abilities and be more transparent.   

Nevertheless, this dilemma between the federal government and the Duke - UNC CMES raises awareness on how taxpayer dollars are being allocated for education. While universities have a duty to be responsible with taxpayer-funded assistance, the government should not micromanage programs in order to promote its political interests.

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