In the fall of 2001, Middle East scholar Martin Kramer published Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Kramer’s book chronicled the takeover of American Middle East Studies by a cohort of politicized scholars who blamed the Middle East’s problems on the West, pooh-poohed the threat of Islamist terror, and pocketed federal subsidies without actually training language experts for government service.
Fortuitously appearing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Kramer’s exposé kicked off calls for reform in the system of federal subsidies to university programs of Middle East Studies (Title VI of the Higher Education Act). I joined Kramer’s crusade early on, and was invited in June of 2003 to testify before a congressional panel, where I called for changes
that would make recipients of Title VI subsidies more accountable. Since then, the House has twice passed Title VI reform. Yet in two successive congresses, reform has stalled in the Senate.
Now, after four years of legislative struggle over Title VI, we may finally be on the verge of a bipartisan breakthrough. On March 27, 2007, after the most extensive review of Title VI subsidies yet conducted, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued a report recommending a series of changes designed to increase the program’s accountability. The NRC’s finding that Title VI language programs are insufficiently reviewed and lack any clear strategy for, or measure of, success sure feels like vindication for the program’s critics.
Yet I’m less interested in crowing about the NRC report than in turning it into the basis for a genuine legislative compromise. In conjunction with a small number of additional changes, I believe that the NRC’s recommendations form the nucleus of a reform plan upon which all sides should be able to agree. Indeed, there are important signs that bipartisan agreement on Title VI reform is already developing.
Before touching on points of agreement, however, I need to take note of what the NRC report does not cover. The NRC investigation focused on issues of language competence, national needs, mechanisms of accountability, and governmental structure. The NRC panel was not charged with investigating, nor did it investigate, political bias in Middle East Studies — a central concern of critics like Kramer and myself. And note that our key complaints about bias have focused on Title VI “outreach programs.” These programs are designed to instruct K-12 teachers on the Middle East, and so shape the way America’s grade-school and high-school students learn about that controversial region. It is critical to note that these K-12 outreach programs are not part of the college curriculum. On the contrary, the outreach programs are creatures of Congress, and therefore quite legitimately subject to federal oversight.
Nor did Congress ask the NRC panel to investigate perhaps the most egregious problem plaguing Title VI: politically motivated professorial boycotts of scholarships offered to students who wish to serve in our defense and intelligence agencies. The problem of these boycotts was at the center of my congressional testimony, and I have written about the boycott issue since then. Yet the NRC panel heard testimony on Title VI from a figure at the center of the boycott controversy and asked him nothing about this problem.
The reason for these two omissions is that Congress wisely reserved the questions of bias and boycotts for treatment at the legislative level. They are still open questions, in need of resolution, and Congress itself is where they should be resolved.
Exactly what changes in Title VI does the NRC propose? The most interesting and important is the creation of a new, presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed, coordinator of all international education and foreign language programs housed in the Department of Education. Think of this new position as a sort of language and area studies “accountability czar.” The accountability czar’s job would be to consult with agencies across the entire government, coordinate Education Department programs with broader needs for language and area expertise, and insure that federal subsidies are given out to university programs actually capable of fulfilling those national needs.
Already, the higher education lobby is trying to spin this new position as an advocate for professors. Yet it’s clear from the NRC report that the position is designed to coordinate and fulfill the government’s language needs, and to insure that the beneficiaries of these subsidies measure up to what the nation’s language needs call for. Of course, different presidents and different senators will have their own ideas about what exactly the new Education-department language czar is supposed to do. But at least the occasion of confirmation hearings creates a mechanism for the public airing of information and opinion about the operation of Title VI subsidies, outreach programs, scholarship boycotts, and the like. I, along with other critics of Title VI, previously recommended establishing an advisory board precisely for the sake of shedding this sort of sunlight. Indeed, the House has twice voted to establish an advisory board. Clearly, the new Education-department language czar is at least part of a comprehensive solution of a sort that could substitute for such an advisory board.