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Issue Date:  September 3, 2004

'Policing the academies': Funding bill ignites fears

Government oversight proposed for international studies receiving federal money; critics say Middle East scholarship is the target


American scholars are alarmed by a controversial education bill that would increase government monitoring of federally funded programs in international studies at colleges and universities. Backers of the bill say it will help restore balance to Middle East studies programs, which they say are overly critical of Israel and of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Opponents say the bill could lead to intrusive investigations of faculty and will undermine the credibility of American scholarship.

Known as HR 3077, the International Studies in Education Act, the legislation reauthorizes funding for international studies. Its most controversial provision calls for the establishment of an advisory board comprised of seven government appointees: one each chosen by the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and three selected by the Secretary of Education, two of whom represent agencies responsible for national security. The proposed board would have the authority “to study, monitor, apprise and evaluate a sample of activities” to ensure that programs represent “diverse perspectives.”

Although the legislation was born out of the polarized debate about Middle East studies, it will apply to a variety of other academic programs related to international studies, including the study and research of modern languages, area studies and anthropology.

The bill passed by a wide majority in the House of Representatives last October and is scheduled to come before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in September.

Fear of its passage in the Senate has evoked strong condemnations and letters of protest from academics and their professional associations.

“It is not the government’s place to be policing the academies,” said John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

Advocates of the bill argue that an oversight board is needed to rectify what they say has been an unchecked problem -- scholars teaching courses “hostile to American foreign policy interests” while receiving federal monies.

“Too many people are too used to receiving open-ended subsidies. The whole notion that these subsidies are tied to national security interests has been lost,” said Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who first proposed a government-appointed advisory board during a house subcommittee hearing on bias in international studies held June 19, 2003.

Scott Fleming, Georgetown University’s assistant for federal relations, observed that national interests are best served through programs that “increase cultural and language understanding” rather than promote a specific policy.

“In the current environment, solid knowledge [of the region] is important. It might not be what we want to hear. To say that we need an advisory committee that is conducting a political correctness test would not serve our national interests,” Fleming said.

The primary endorsers of HR 3077 include the American Jewish Congress, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League all of which are lobbying hard for the bill’s passage in the Senate.

What about faculty?

Although the proposed advisory board is not authorized “to mandate, direct or control” instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction, many in academia worry the legislation could subject colleges and universities to intrusive and time-consuming investigations.

“The one word missing in that list of things the board would not direct or control is ‘faculty.’ Would bugging a classroom or a faculty office constitute monitoring a sample?” asked Robert Scholes in an article entitled “An Advisory Board to Be Wary of” that appeared in the May 14 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scholes, a research professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, is also president of the Modern Language Association. While many association members believe federally funded language programs should be held accountable for their results, “we are very worried about any government-sponsored litmus test for ideological correctness,” he wrote.

Advocates of HR 3077 dismiss these fears as “excessive paranoia,” arguing that the “narrowly tailored” legislation gives the advisory board the authority only to make recommendations to Congress and the secretary of education concerning “critical flaws” in federally funded programs in international studies.

“We are all for academic freedom. But academic freedom means being able to have a balance of ideas,” said Sarah Stern, director of governmental and public affairs for the American Jewish Congress. If students received information only on the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib, Stern said, they would have a distorted understanding of American presence in Iraq. “We are not saying Abu Ghraib shouldn’t be taught. We’re saying that should be one chapter of the story and not the whole story.”

But academics contest these charges of bias. “They are absolutely false,” said Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair of the Middle East Studies at Columbia University. Like many in academia, Khalidi believe the calls for diversity in curriculum are politically motivated and have more to do with ideology than academic integrity. Esposito has called the legislation “part of post 9/11 neoconservative attempt” to have America reconfigure the world. The proponents of the legislation “have a notion of how that reconfiguring should occur. And it is not in any balanced way. It goes counter to American democracy. It goes counter to the incredible strength of higher education in America,” he said.

Additionally, academics are concerned that the injection of political considerations into the content of higher education will undermine its credibility.

“Studies that are committed to a particular position will damage the quality of research and teaching in Middle East studies,” said Yoram Meital of the Middle East Studies program at Ben Gurion University in Israel.

Meital was quoted in an extensive article about the controversy over American Middle East Studies that appeared in the Israeli daily Haaretz last spring. The newspaper pointed out that should the American law pass, it could affect international researchers who “are liable to be required to reveal their political tendencies” before visiting U.S. institutions.

The HR 3077 battle is yet another chapter in the increasingly bitter conflict over Middle East studies that has pitted neoconservatives and hard-line supporters of Israel against some of the country’s most prominent Middle East scholars. Academics in the field say they have come under siege from these critics, whose efforts have now prompted a call for congressional monitoring of Middle East studies.

At the center of the controversy are Middle East studies programs that receive Title VI funding.

To fill an ‘education gap’

Congress enacted the Title VI program under the National Defense Education Act of 1958, after the Sputnik launch sparked concerns about an “education gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union. Eager to beef up the nation’s expertise in other cultures, the government authorized public funding of foreign-language studies and national resource centers, especially for politically sensitive areas such as the Middle East and communist countries. The program, which distributes grants of $500,000 or less, remains the single largest source of federal money for international studies.

Once in decline, Title VI program got a financial boost after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 revealed government agencies were short on Middle East experts and Arab-language speakers. Congressional funding for Middle East centers and Arab language classes increased, as did student enrollment. National resource centers focused on Middle East studies at U.S. universities now number 17, up from 14 in 2001.

Despite the increase in funds, the program’s coffers remain remarkably small. Last year, Congress allocated $90 million for Title VI programs, and of that $4.5 million went to the 17 federally funded national resource centers on Middle East studies.

“This is a paltry sum of money and the scandal is that it is so little, given the need of a democratic society to keep informed of foreign policy challenges,” wrote Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, in a column posted Jan. 23, 2003, on History News Network, an online publication that provides commentary by historians on current events.

After 9/11, increased interest in Middle East studies also brought increased scrutiny from conservative critics who began to argue that Title VI centers had “abused” their government funding by offering scholarship that is too pro-Arab, too one-sided in its criticism of American foreign policy and too inattentive to the “rising threat” of Islamist terrorism.

Some of these critics contended that Middle East scholars jeopardized national security by being insufficiently attentive to the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.

In October 2001, the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a conservative pro-Israeli think tank, published Martin Kramer’s polemic, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle East Studies in America. In his book, Kramer, a professor of contemporary Islam and Arab politics at Tel Aviv University, argues that the biases and prejudices of American Middle East scholars have tainted their scholarship and prevented them from understanding the region’s more dangerous developments. He recommended Congressional hearings on Title VI and reform of the program.

Two years ago historian Daniel Pipes launched Campus Watch, a Web site dedicated to revealing the alleged bias of mainstream Middle East studies programs at U.S. colleges and universities. The Internet organization is an offshoot of the Middle East Forum, a private think tank dedicated to “promoting America’s interests,” which Pipes established in 1990. Until last June, Kramer was the editor of the forum’s publication, The Middle East Quarterly.

A former defense department official and Middle East analyst, Pipes believes scholars of the region have failed to adequately explain the threat of militant Islam and have overlooked repressive Arab regimes. He has described Campus Watch as a consumer guide to Middle East studies, intended to prompt public examination of what is being taught.

But Pipe’s tactic of posting dossiers of academics along with their photographs and urging students to report on professors who show a “lack of balance” has infuriated many Middle East scholars who liken his campaign to a “witch hunt” intended to intimidate. They say being targeted by Campus Watch engenders a flood of abusive e-mail and does little to foster real debate.

“It is a kind of name-calling designed to shut people up, to shut them down. There have been death threats on people’s lives. When accusations were made that were later proved to be false, there were never any retractions,” said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association and a professor of Arab literature and culture at the University of Arizona.

“If there have been hostile threats, I abhor and condemn them,” said Pipes, who disbelieves the allegations. “Academics can criticize but as soon as they are criticized they cry foul and make up stories,” he said, later adding that such actions were “juvenile and self-indulgent.”

Waiting to take over

Pipes own views on Islam are highly controversial. An advocate of Muslim profiling, he has warned in public addresses that militant American Muslims are waiting to take over the United States and in remarks made to the American Jewish Congress in October 2001 said, “The increased stature and affluence and enfranchisement of American Muslims” will present “true dangers to American Jews.”

Last year the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, the same committee slated to vote on the upcoming education legislation, rejected President Bush’s nomination of Pipes to the U.S. Institute for Peace because members considered his views too extreme for a government-funded think tank dedicated to conflict resolution. Pipes eventually joined the institute through a recess appointment by Bush.

What the Senate’s version of the House bill will be remains unknown. Gayle Osterberg, a press officer for Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, would divulge only that the committee had received “a lot of calls on both sides of the issue.”

Organizations opposing the legislation include the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American University Presses. Also opposed are the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 2004

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