Photo via Good Free Photos

September 19, 2019; New York Times

The US Department of Education, in a strongly written letter published last week in the Federal Register, accused the Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES), a joint program of Duke University and the University of North Carolina, of misusing federal funding. The issue from the Department’s perspective was not fraud or managerial malfeasance but that CMES’s offerings discriminated against some religious minorities. For some, this was just an issue of course planning and detail; for others, it’s part of a larger effort to quash a disliked viewpoint.

The funding in question was allocated under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which provides funding to establish “undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs.” The Education Department saw the curriculum at CMES as too focused on Islam to the detriment of other ethnic groups. Specifically, it said:

Few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, Druze, and others. Also, in your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.

The New York Times notes that the challenge of CMES “appears to reflect the views of an agency leadership that includes a civil rights chief, Kenneth L. Marcus, who has made a career of pro-Israel advocacy and has waged a years-long campaign to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs. […] Before joining the Education Department, Marcus had aggressively lobbied for the Higher Education Act to crack down on Middle East studies programs, and criticized both the Education Department and Congress for failing to hold institutions accountable for violating the law’s ‘diverse perspectives’ requirement.”

The DoE’s look at CMES was prompted by a complaint from Rep. George Holding (R-NC) over a specific CMES conference, “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities.” The reaction can be read as a reflection of the Trump administration’s pro-Israel position and an attack on the Muslim community. Holding alleged the conference was “rife with radical anti-Israel bias,” “featured active members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel,” and “featured panelists who distorted facts and misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza.”

The Department also saw evidence of CMES’s bias and misuse of federal funds in the courses, workshops, and seminars it offered: “Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern Iran’ and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of US national security and economic stability.” In demanding that CMES revise its curriculum and change its programs, the Education Department dives deeper than it has before into challenging academic freedom at colleges and universities.

Those who see a growing anti-Israel bias on campuses across the country greeted the action warmly. Miriam Elman, an associate professor at Syracuse University and the executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes the BDS movement, called it “a wake-up call.”

“What they’re saying,” Elman said to the Times, “is, if you want to be biased and show an unbalanced view of the Middle East, you can do that, but you’re not going to get federal and taxpayer money.”

“To get Title VI,” she continued, “you really have to strive for viewpoint diversity. This is what our students want. They don’t want to be indoctrinated. They want both sides.”

Critics saw the situation differently, of course. Zoha Khalili, a staff lawyer at Palestine Legal, said in comments reported by the Times that the message from the Trump administration is “If you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death. The department’s intervention sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel.” Tallie Ben Daniel, Jewish Voice for Peace’s research and education manager, saw it as an effort “to enforce a neoconservative agenda onto spaces of academic inquiry and exploration.”

Officially, CMES wishes to stay out of this debate. “The consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program,” the university said in a statement. “In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the consortium is committed to working with the department to provide more information about its programs.”

When the DoE receives CMES’s response to the issues it raised, we’ll be able to see how much the groves of academe have been trampled. Significant concessions and program revisions by CMES will validate the administration’s aggressive stance. It will set a precedent for how much the federal government can use its resources to shape coursework and academic focus. If they are successful, whatever your perspective on Israel-Palestine, you should be worried.—Martin Levine