A Middle East studies program run jointly by UNC and Duke University has run afoul of federal Title VI mandates and is at risk of losing federal funds, the U.S. Department of Education has warned the two schools.
In a letter to UNC Vice Chancellor for Research Terry Magnuson, the department says the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies “appears to lack balance as it offers very 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, Yadizis, 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 letter said that the consortium appears to offer “very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities.”
The secretary of education makes grants through the federal Title VI program to universities and to consortia of institutions such as the UNC-Duke program “for the purposes of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs, and of establishing, strengthening, and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs,” the letter said.
The congressionally authorized grants are intended “to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States by teaching American students the foreign languages and cultural competencies required to develop a pool of experts to meet our national needs.”
The letter also said the department found little relevance to Title VI mandates in some aspects of the program such as the study of Iranian art and film.
“While the Duke-UNC CMES may certainly offer programs in Iranian art and film, these programs should not be funded or subsidized in any way by American taxpayers under Title VI unless you are able to clearly demonstrate that such programs are secondary to more rigorous coursework helping American students to become fluent Farsi speakers and to prepare for work in areas of national need.”
Among other concerns, the letter said that “35 percent of program graduates go to higher education positions and only 11 percent to government positions suggests that there are critical shortcomings and impermissible biases in the programming.”
A UNC-issued statement said: “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. In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about its programs.” A spokesperson said the University would have no further comment at this time.
The New York Times gave the story prominent play on Thursday and reported that “academic freedom advocates say the government could be setting a dangerous precedent if it injects politics into funding decisions.” The paper said a spokesman for Duke had referred questions to UNC.
The consortium is directed to provide a revised schedule that it plans to support for the coming year, “including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.”
“The Duke-UNC CMES is further required to provide the Department with a full list of courses in Middle East studies, including academic rank and employment status of each instructor who teaches each course.”
The Aug. 29 letter sets a Sept. 22 deadline for the response.