Duke University and The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill may soon be embroiled in a battle over funding with the Department of Education (DOE). At issue? How the institutions use federal grant money to support their Middle Eastern Studies programs.
The two schools are part of a consortium that receives federal grant money to promote coursework and workshops that prepare students for possible careers in foreign diplomacy or national security. This specific grant is part of the National Resource Center program and is currently granted to many universities throughout the country. Duke and UNC have been receiving the money since 2005 and received $235,000 last year. But, based on a recent investigation and a subsequent warning letter from the Department of Education, that could all change.
The investigation was prompted by North Carolina Rep. George Holding (R), who expressed concerns in a letter to DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos. His concerns stemmed around a conference entitled, “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities.” Holding stated that the content of the conference contained “severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” He then asked DeVos to investigate, claiming that it is, “ irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy camouflaged as academic discourse.”
The DOE’s investigation concluded that the consortium did not meet the requirements of the grant, specifically citing a lack of “balance of perspectives” on religion.
According to The Associated Press, the review claimed that there is “a considerable emphasis” placed on “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 DOE also expressed concerns that only a small number of students enrolled in the program pursued a career in government, while three times as many students pursue a career in academia.
They have tasked Duke/UNC to provide a schedule of activities for the upcoming year, explain how they meet the criteria, and how they promote an interest in national security.
Many in academia are concerned that this is overreaching. Opponents of the government involvement claim the outlined courses and presentations were designed to educate on Middle Eastern culture specifically, where Islam is the prominent religion. Jay Smith, a UNC professor and vice president of its chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told The Associated Press that the DOE’s response is equivalent to “ideologically driven harassment.”
In a statement, UNC, Chapel Hill stated that the consortium, “deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education” and is “committed to working with the department to provide more information about its programs.” Duke has not commented on the situation.
Students and faculty at the UNC, Chapel Hill Campus have organized a protest in response to the DOE’s actions. The UNC Muslim Student Association released its own statement, saying, “Your insistence upon the prioritization of ‘national security’ over Islamic studies reveals a rejection of human understanding and appreciation for different beliefs and practices.” The statement went on to address the politicization of the program. “The Duke-UNC Middle Eastern Studies Consortium is not your political tool. It is an acclaimed center for students and academics to study a part of the world that is too often demonized and misunderstood. This includes studying Islam in a way that is more complex than the black-and-white view promoted by mainstream media.”