The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has called for the US Department of Education (DOE) to drop an investigation into a university’s Middle East studies programme, saying the agency is attempting to mould the curriculum according to the administration’s “ideological standards”.
In a letter to school officials in August, the DOE said that the joint Duke University-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies offered students a biased curriculum.
DOE Assistant Secretary Robert King wrote in the letter that the programme included a “considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam” without a similar positive focus on other religions or belief systems in the Middle East or focus on persecuted religious minorities.
The letter, which was posted to the public Federal Register last week, concluded that the consortium’s curriculum and programmes, without an overhaul, might be “unqualified” for a $235,000 federal grant it currently receives. That grant, under the Title VI programme, is contingent on displaying a curriculum or centre is a “national resource” for foreign language and international studies.
The consortium “offers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to US national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities,” the DOE letter said.
But critics charge the agency is playing politics with the grant money.
Kate Ruane, the ACLU’s senior legislative council, said on Friday that the DOE’s action amounts to censorship, adding the “efforts undermine academic freedom and have no factual or legal basis”.
In a letter addressed to DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos, the ACLU said the DOE’s inquiry “raises concerns that the department is injecting the current presidential administration’s long pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination into the Title VI funding process.”
The rights group also demanded that the agency turn over all records relating to the investigation.
The DOE, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said that the investigation is legal under federal regulations.
“It is absurd to be accused of bigotry for recommending the inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities,” DOE Press Secretary Angela Morabito said. “Real bigotry would be ignoring or dismissing the existence of religious minorities as immaterial to a full understanding of the region.”
DeVos launched the inquiry into the consortium in June, two months after US Representative George Holding, a Republican, requested an investigation after seeing “reports of severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric at the taxpayer-funded conference”.
Holding, in an April letter to DeVos, said he had received complaints from his constituents about the conference, called “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities”, which he said featured speakers “actively involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement”.
DeVos has publicly called the BDS movement “one of the most pernicious threats” of anti-Semitism on college campuses.
The ACLU argued that the DOE’s “true objection seems to be that consortium has failed to conform its programming to the Administration’s own ideological standards.”
The rights group also said that universities receiving similar funds are “now on notice that they must espouse a particular viewpoint regarding Israel to the satisfaction of the government and must tread lightly when it comes to any curricular content that could somehow be perceived as portraying Islam and Muslims in a positive light.”
For its part, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the consortium is based, rebutted the DOE’s claims in a September 20 response obtained by the News and Observer newspaper.
In the response, Terry Magnuson, a vice chancellor for research at the university, said the consortium will establish an advisory board to review its programmes and activities, but argued that the centre has provided diverse courses and conferences, including “positive appreciation” for Christianity and Judaism and explorations on the persecution faced by all religious minority groups in the Middle East.
Duke University President Vincent Price said on Thursday that the situation “has heightened concern about possible intrusions into academic freedom and curriculum”.
“We want to be very clear: no outside entity will determine what Duke faculty will teach, how they teach it, what they choose to research or write about, or who can speak on our campus,” he said in a statement.
He acknowledged that “government agencies can and do choose what they will support with public funds”.
He added that if Duke accepts Title VI funding, it has “an obligation to understand and abide by the applicable legal guidelines for its use”.
The heads of five universities in Massachusetts – Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst – decried DOE’s investigation in a letter to the department on Wednesday.
“We object strongly to the US Department of Education’s effort to censure the curriculum of Middle East studies courses offered by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” the letter said. “By threatening to withhold federal funding, the Department of Education is setting a dangerous precedent, one that puts academic freedom at risk.”