A bill recently proposed in Congress extends that debate into the higher education field of area studies.
Seen by some as an extension of the culture wars and attempts to silence critics of US policies, the bill’s creation of a politically appointed advisory board has many academics calling foul. Proponents of the measure say it is necessary to ensure ideological balance within federally funded university programmes.
The proposed legislation was debated on 19 June 2003, at a hearing before the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Select Education.
There, Stanley Kurtz, contributing editor to the conservative National Review Online, charged that Middle East and other area studies programmes funded by the government "tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy".
"Free speech is not an entitlement to a government subsidy," spelled out Kurtz. In his testimony, he urged that steps be taken to "balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy".
The House subsequently passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, which reauthorises Title VI grants for area studies and foreign language study at the university level. The Senate subcommittee currently reviewing it expects to take it to the floor in early April.
US government intends
discouraging academic criticism
The bill, HR 3077, also establishes an International Higher Education Advisory Board that opponents fear might limit academic freedom. Some are worried that university programmes could end up being financially punished on political grounds.
"I suspect that some of the people on that board will come after Title VI centres and try to demonstrate that they’re infested with anti-Americans and critics of Israel," says Zachary Lockman, professor of modern Middle East history and director of the Hagop Kevorkian Centre for Near Eastern Studies at New York University.
"From there, I suspect, there will be efforts to reduce funding, or to make funding dependent on meeting much more political criteria than has ever been the case in the past", he adds.
The bill states that the degree to which programmes "foster debate on American foreign policy" will be taken into account as grant selection criteria.
The proposed advisory board is charged with making recommendations on grant recipients to "assure that their relative authorised activities reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs".
But Lockman says that covering the full spectrum is "mission impossible."
"Who is to determine what the full range of views is? Universities reject the idea that the federal government should impose, as a condition for receiving federal funding that, for example, teach Creationism."
Title VI programmes had an advisory board during the 1980s that was dropped during a previous reauthorisation bill. The Department of Education has its own stringent review process for Title VI programmes; one that Lockman believes serves its purposes well.
The board proposed in HR 3077, however, has a whole new look.
"The intent of the advisory board is to have a broader diversity of persons involved in the programme," says Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), co-sponsor of HR 3077. "There’s been some concern that it was so academic that it was talking to itself."
Bush administration known for
its partisan agenda
The proposed legislation calls for a seven–person board consisting of four members appointed by Congress and three by the Secretary of Education. Two must represent federal agencies with "national security responsibilities". The board is authorised to enlist the assistance of outside agencies in seeking information.
"The composition of the board is meant to reflect the extra-academic constituencies that have an interest in Title VI," explains Martin Kramer, proponent of the bill and senior associate the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Campus talent is "now held hostage by leftover left radicals," he says, and he hopes that the proposed board can reform Title VI from what he calls "a semi-entitlement, a simple subsidy for academics".
"The idea of federal government oversight of federal money is obviously unexceptionable, nobody can object to it," says Rashid Khalidi, professor of history and director of the Middle East Institute at New York University.
"But assuming the kind of partisan agenda that the Bush administration has always shown in its appointments, we’re going to see some neo-cons out of the Defence establishment and some biased academics appointed to this body," he fears.
And Khalidi is not reassured by the bill’s disclaimer that the advisory board may not "mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or programme of instruction".
"I think what will be created is an inquisitorial body, which will act in a McCarthian manner." The worst-case scenario that worries people, he says, is that "they’re going to go off on a witch hunt and search down some poor professor, and they’re going to make an example of that person, which will then generate a storm."
Title VI originated in the National Defence Education Act of 1958, which, during the Cold War, funded programmes in foreign languages and area studies with the goal of strengthening national security.
"I think what will be created is an inquisitorial body, which will act in a McCarthian manner"
professor, New York University
But Title VI now funds 14 domestic and foreign programmes with a slim budget of around $95 million. Within those programmes, 17 Middle East centres share a budget of only some $4.5 million.
Kristen Brustad, associate professor of Arabic at Emory University, says that her programme’s Title VI funding is a "pittance, but it’s those pennies that pay for the language lectures that keep our programme going".
Middle East expertise
Title VI funds Arabic, Hebrew and Persian language training at Emory, as well as outreach activities to increase Middle East expertise among local K-12 teachers.
That a political agenda might threaten such programmes is frightening to Brustad. "A lot of state university language programmes would not survive without Department of Education funds," she says.
But Daniel Pipes, director of the conservative Middle East Forum, wants these shoestring budgets de-funded altogether.
He believes that the field is not "in good shape," and is "sceptical" that the proposed Title VI advisory board is an "adequate step towards fixing the problems, because it is advisory, and has no real powers".
Pipes shares Kurtz’s view that Title VI programmes have failed US national interests.
"I’d like to see the [Title VI] money go to institutions that are directly concerned with developing the skills, linguistic, cultural and other, that would help us in the national security area," he explains.
Rather than being funnelled through academic programmes, Pipes believes that Title VI money should fund the establishment of "national resource centres to focus on the global war on terror".
Brustad finds the notion horrendous. "The fact is, we’re doing a better job and producing higher level speakers in academic programmes than the government is by investing four times the amount of time and energy and a lot more money," she says.
Moreover, government agencies, she counters, are "hiring out of universities, not out of the Defence Language Institute. There’s always been the philosophy that our national interest is much better served by producing people who are thinkers [rather] than robots."