Politics & Policy

Hearing Both Sides of Title VI

Middle-east studies critics and defenders clash on the Hill.

Last Thursday, June 19, I testified at a contentious hearing of the House Subcommittee on Select Education. The hearing was convened to examine charges of bias leveled against programs of international education funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Title VI-funded programs support the academic study of the Middle East, and other areas of the world. (You can read my testimony here and you can view the hearings on video by going here. Note that the first two of the five witnesses were not involved in the controversy. You can safely skip their testimony, if desired.)

Having laid out my fundamental claims about bias in “Studying Title VI,” I’m going to review and respond to the two witnesses who denied my charges. They were Gilbert W. Merkx, vice provost for International Affairs at Duke University, and Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, the chief national lobbying organization for the higher-education community.

My most explosive charge is that scholars taking Title VI money (on grounds of national security) are operating an unconscionable, politically motivated boycott against the National Security Education Program (NSEP), a scholarship program meant to bring speakers of foreign languages into our defense and intelligence agencies. Neither Merkx nor Hartle defended the boycott. Instead, they denied that a boycott existed at all. Hartle denied that “colleges and universities” were trying to kill the NSEP. Merkx denied that any Title VI centers were boycotting the NSEP.

This sleight of hand by Hartle and Merkx relied on the fact that, for over a decade, the Middle East, Latin American, and African Studies associations have called for a boycott against the NSEP. Since it was those scholarly associations that declared the boycott (not the actual colleges and universities where the members of those associations teach) Merkx and Hartle tried to finesse the need to even acknowledge that a boycott existed. That denial betrayed bad faith — and was factually wrong to boot. For one thing, when a university issues an official letter meant to inform students of a boycott, and discourage them from applying for a scholarship, then that university ought by rights to be held responsible for its action.

More than that, Merkx’s denial that any Title VI centers, as such, boycott the NSEP (as opposed to scholars at those centers who happen to belong to a professional association that has voted a boycott) is simply wrong. One of the hearings’ dramatic moments came when I answered Merkx by reading from a “smoking-gun” memo.

That memo had been privately circulated among directors and associates of Title VI African Studies centers, after a center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison broke the NSEP boycott. The memo went out under the name of David Wiley, past president of the African Studies Association and himself a key coordinator of national Title VI centers. (I interviewed and reported on Wiley in “Ivory Scam.”) The memo describes the “great dismay” among Title VI African Resource Center directors at the attempt to break the boycott. Shamefully, the memo reveals that, a scant two months after September 11, Title VI African Studies Center directors met and voted unanimously for a “formal reaffirmation of the boycott.”

So the smoking-gun memo proves Merkx and Hartle wrong. There is a boycott of the NSEP, and that boycott involves directors of Title VI centers, who acted in their official capacity, to destroy an offending center. Yet it’s telling that we only know this because I managed to obtain a privately circulated enforcement memo. That memo establishes the seamless (if secret) connection between the association boycotts and the Title VI program. But what if I hadn’t obtained the memo? In that case, Merkx and Hartle would have been able to sustain their hair-splitting denials that a boycott implicating Title VI centers even exists.

Under questioning, Hartle claimed that Title VI center directors are committed to keeping their centers “fair and balanced.” Implying in his written testimony that Kurtz wants to stifle the free expression of those who believe that America is to blame for problems in the Middle East, Hartle argued that the best way to get at the truth is to let sharply different perspectives clash. According to Hartle, that’s all that was going on in the now infamous U.C. Santa Barbara course where Edward Said, Arundhati Roy, Robert Fisk, Tariq Ali, et. al. were assigned to answer the question, “Why do they hate us.” Besides, said Hartle, when the question at hand is, “Why do they hate us?” it’s only natural that the answer will involve critical thoughts about the United States.

Of course the problem with the UCSB reading list was that not a single author who believed that Arabs have been scape-goating the U.S. for their own internal problems was included. Bernard Lewis has a totally different answer to the question of “why they hate us” than Robert Fisk. But at UCSB, only Fisk and his friends were assigned. Where is the clash of ideas there?

Nor did Hartle have anything to say about my discussion (in “Studying Title VI”) of bias at NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center. Why didn’t the NYU center director bring on new voices to insure “fair and balanced” treatment of the war in Afghanistan, when nearly every one of his associates took extremist stands against that war? Maybe it’s because the center director himself was part of the one-sided chorus denouncing the war in Afghanistan. Having no answer to my NYU example, Hartle simply dismissed it as an “anecdote.”

And what about my claim that Edward Said’s extremist post-colonial theory is the dominant paradigm in academic area studies today? Hartle denied this. According to Hartle, Said’s influence peaked about ten years ago and has been declining ever since. Besides, said Hartle, Said’s books are only occasionally assigned as readings in area-studies courses.

Hartle emphasized that Kurtz’s complaints are all about Middle East studies, which takes up only a limited portion of Title VI funding. And Kurtz’s complaints are only about issues of history and political science. Yet Middle East studies centers touch on many other disciplines. So according to Hartle, all of Kurtz’s fuss is about a nonexistent boycott, a few anecdotes of bias, a controversial theory (of limited and declining influence), and only one small piece of the area-studies pie.

Hartle is wrong on all counts. For one thing, bias in area studies is pervasive. After all, when three major area-studies associations and (secretly) every Title VI African Studies center (and who knows how many other Title VI centers in secret) engage in a politically motivated boycott of a national-security scholarship, the problem obviously goes far beyond a few isolated anecdotes. That why Hartle so desperately needs to deny the existence of a boycott.

And the problem of bias goes far beyond Middle East Studies. After all, the NSEP boycott is sponsored by the Latin American and African Studies Associations, too. Beyond that, as I assured the committee, the influence of Edward Said’s post-colonial theory is in many ways even more pervasive in South Asian studies than in Middle East studies. So we’re already talking about deep bias in programs on four major areas of the non-Western world.

By the way, post-colonial theory pervades and influences a vast range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. It is deeply influential in anthropology, for example, and Said himself is a literary theorist. So the problem goes far beyond political science or history.

Of course, once you launch a paradigm, your influence ramifies. Said’s own books don’t have to be assigned for his basic political stance to be represented in a course. Post-colonial theory is very influential in anthropological studies of Africa and India, for example, but you will only occasionally find a course on those areas of the world that actually assigns Edward Said. They don’t need to. There are plenty of contemporary specialists who have adapted Said’s original stance to whatever area of the world is being studied. The point is, whether Said’s books are assigned or not (and in a many courses, especially in Middle East studies, they are), the influence of the larger political-intellectual perspective he helped to create is widespread.

I stand by my claim that post-colonial theory is the dominant paradigm in area studies. It is more powerful than any other single approach. Nonetheless, even if Said’s paradigm is broadly defined, there’s a lot more going on in area studies than just post-colonial theory. So here’s an image that will give you a sense of what the political-intellectual range of debate in academic area studies is really like.

Imagine Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Howard Dean, and John Kerry gathered together in a room for a daily debate on American foreign policy. Now imagine that once every week or ten days, Condoleezza Rice shows up and joins the debate for a day. That’s about the range of intellectual-political debate in today’s area-studies community. Of course there’s enough of a range within this little group of four to make for a good deal of disagreement. Ultimately, though, it’s a bogus debate, because it includes only half the intellectual-political spectrum (except for those brief weekly visits by Condoleezza). This is an all too accurate metaphor for the state of political debate in today’s academy.

How can this problem be fixed? For one thing, we could trim funding to Title VI. But the funding question isn’t being decided now. This subcommittee is reauthorizing the legislative structure of Title VI. Well then, how about an amendment that would defund any Title VI center that engaged in a boycott of national-security-related scholarships? Great idea. But who would enforce the amendment? We’ve seen that the real boycott operates in secret. That brings us to the one proposal that could solve the underlying problem — a supervisory board.

Only a board could monitor the boycott, and collect information on program content to make sure that Title VI centers were not shutting out one side of the political debate. I happened to luck out when a “deep throat” came to me with the secret memo describing the boycott being run by Title VI African Studies center directors. But with a board in place, it would be that much more difficult to run a secret boycott. Dissenters could always expose political boycotts to the board. What’s more, potential boycotters would know this, and that would help keep them in check.

Academic freedom is not an entitlement to a government subsidy, and every other government-scholarship program has a board to facilitate fair dispersal of funds. In fact, Title VI itself had a board years ago, until its beneficiaries managed to get rid of it. Of course, Merkx and Hartle did what they could to deflect the idea of a board. What really scares them is my proposal that a board should be composed of representatives from Cabinet departments, and presidential appointees. The higher-education lobby is petrified that a board with members appointed by a Republican administration might break the left’s monopoly on Title VI.

Under questioning, and in an effort to hold off the idea of presidential appointees, Merkx at least granted that it would make sense for a supervisory board to include representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, CIA, and Homeland Security. For a higher-education community that has strenuously objected to any defense or intelligence presence in Title VI, that is actually and huge and very meaningful concession.

Hartle was more determined than Merkx to avoid a supervisory board. Hartle’s diversionary plan was that Congress should establish an investigative commission from the National Academy of Sciences that would send out letters to Title VI center directors asking them if they had been influenced by Edward Said. This is a laughable proposal. For one thing, the directors would simply write back, “Edward who? Never heard of him.” In any case, as noted, the real debate in area studies, bogus and one-side though it may be, would allow these center directors to point to influences from Dean/Kerry types, as well as from Sontag/Chomsky types.

The only way to redress the ideological bias in Title VI is with a permanent supervisory board composed of knowledgeable presidential appointees and representatives of various Cabinet departments — including Defense and CIA. The higher-education establishment will do its best to substitute a bogus commission that will file a report, dissolve itself, and leave the current ideological monopoly in place. So the test for Congress right now is whether it will do the right thing and create a proper board for Title VI. Other government-scholarship programs already have such boards, and Title VI has had one before, so there is no excuse for not having a board.

This is a decisive moment. Despite decades of complaints about campus bias, there had probably never been a congressional hearing on the problem. Because of September 11, the public is finally alert to the importance and depth of campus bias. If you have ever worried about bias on our college campuses, but despaired of doing anything about it, this is your chance. Contact the members of the Subcommittee on Select Education (especially if you are in their district), and voice your support for a permanent board for Title VI — a board composed of both Cabinet representatives and presidential appointees.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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