In August of 2008, Congress resolved a hard-fought five-year battle over the system of federal subsidies to programs of Middle East Studies. In past years, in addition to subsidizing language instruction, millions of federal dollars have funded intensely biased university-run programs of “public outreach.” In effect, the taxpayer has subsidized the public political agitation of university professors, even as those professors have discouraged their students from contributing badly needed language expertise to our defense and intelligence agencies. Wealthy Saudi donors now exercise substantial influence over these federally funded centers of Middle East Studies, often using them to promote Saudi-designed curricula for America’s K-12 students. Fortunately, Congress has at long last taken steps to curb these abuses.
U.S. lawmakers acted not a moment too soon, because the first test case for this new law may be playing out even now at UCLA’s government-designated “National Resource Center” for knowledge of the Middle East. On January 21, 2009, UCLA’s federally subsidized Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) staged a public symposium on “Gaza and Human Rights” in which four noted critics of Israel unanimously condemned its Gaza incursion in front of an audience of largely non-student supporters chanting “Zionism is racism” and “F— Israel.” (I say four “critics” of Israel, but many would characterize all or most of these speakers as extremist opponents of Israel’s very existence.) In the weeks since that event, many students and leading faculty at UCLA (including several critics of Israeli policy) have condemned this symposium’s one-sidedness and bemoaned the transformation of CNES from an honest broker of debate into a one-sided advocacy group. That is exactly what the new federal legislation was meant to prevent (without interfering in the classroom). The question is whether and how the new law will work.
A LAW REFORMED
What exactly does the new law do? Title VI of the Higher Education Act has long subsidized selected university programs of “area studies” (such as Middle East Studies, African Studies, and Latin American Studies). The idea is to encourage the study of little-known languages and cultures, in the expectation that a sizable number of students will bring their knowledge of strategic languages into the U.S. Foreign Service and our defense and intelligence agencies. As with other federal higher-education grants, subsidized area-studies programs are required to extend their activities beyond the college classroom by staging programs of “public outreach” (such as public symposia and K-12 teacher training).
To remedy abuses, the new law requires federally subsidized programs to conduct post-graduation placement surveys. That creates accountability, making it easier for departments that regularly place students in government service to renew their grants. Unfortunately, many area-studies programs and professors boycott scholarships that enable students to serve in America’s defense and intelligence agencies. (See my “Boycott Exposure.”) The new law counters those boycotts by requiring federally subsidized programs to encourage students to enter government service in areas of national need. Finally, Title VI of the Higher Education Act now calls on all federally subsidized programs of area studies to “reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.” (To read the text of the new law, go here. The key section is at pp. 3333-3345.)
MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS
This may be the first time that Congress has gone on record affirming the value of “intellectual diversity.” The very purpose of academic freedom is to promote and protect an active “marketplace of ideas” on campus. All Congress is doing, then, is ratifying classic principles of intellectual liberty. More than that, the new legislation includes a “rule of construction” that explicitly prevents the government from mandating, directing, or controlling the content of college curricula. (See my “Opening the Classroom Door.”)
The “public outreach” activities of federally sponsored Middle East Studies centers are not part of the college classroom curriculum. Instead, they are federally sponsored and mandated activities, directed to students on campus, but even more so to the general public. Until now, these congressionally mandated public-outreach programs have been almost entirely without oversight. That is why foreign donors have been able to use them as a sort of Trojan horse to evade local curriculum safeguards and gain influence over America’s K-12 education system. (See my “Saudi in the Classroom.”)
By explicitly calling on federally subsidized “public outreach” activities to encourage debate and reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views on international issues, Congress has created a lever for redress against programs that violate these fundamental values.