Politics & Policy

Studying Title VI

Criticisms of Middle East studies get a congressional hearing.

For some time now, I have criticized scholars who study the Middle East (and other areas of the world) for abusing Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Title VI-funded programs in Middle Eastern studies (and other area studies) tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy.


It is my pleasure to announce that Congress has decided to investigate the charges of political bias that have been leveled against Title VI programs by critics like Martin Kramer, Daniel Pipes, and myself. This Thursday, June 19, at 1:00 P.M. in room 2175 of the Rayburn House Office Building, the Subcommittee on Select Education will hold a hearing entitled, “International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias.” I will testify at that hearing, and it is likely that defenders of Title VI will also be called as witnesses. There could be fireworks. I will post a report on the hearings next week.

First, I want to express my gratitude to the Subcommittee on Select Education, and especially to its chairman, Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.), for taking seriously allegations of problems with Title VI. I am also deeply grateful to the readers of National Review Online. I have no doubt that the willingness of NRO readers to convey their concerns about Title VI to members of Congress has played an essential role in bringing these hearings about.

Along with the readers of NRO, the higher-education lobby has taken careful note of my criticisms of Title VI. David Ward, chancellor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, president of the American Council on Education, and arguably the chief lobbyist for the higher-education community, has published rebuttals of my criticisms of Title VI. Ward has issued, “Talking Points Refuting Stanley Kurtz’s Attack on HEA-Title VI Area Centers,” and a public letter to the House subcommittee that funds Title VI. I want to answer Ward’s supposed refutation of my charges against Title VI.

According to Ward, I offer no evidence to show that scholars associated with Title VI centers either purvey anti-American views, or seek to undermine American foreign policy. Although I point to a Title VI-funded workshop for K-12 teachers that assigned readings from only the most virulent critics of American foreign policy, Ward dismisses this example as a single isolated anecdote.

Ward is mistaken. I’ve provided plenty of examples of egregious hostility to America, and/or American foreign policy, by Title VI-funded scholars. I will provide still more evidence today. But first, let’s get back to basics.


The ruling intellectual paradigm in academic area studies (especially Middle Eastern studies) is called “post-colonial theory.” Post-colonial theory was founded by Columbia University professor of comparative literature, Edward Said. Said gained fame by equating professors who support American foreign policy with the 19th-century European intellectuals who propped up racist colonial empires. The core premise of post-colonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power.

Having received my doctorate in social anthropology at Harvard University, and having taught at both Harvard and the University of Chicago, I’ve had ample opportunity to see the dominance of Edward Said’s post-colonial theory within the area-studies community.

In his regular columns for the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram, Said has made his views about America crystal clear. Said has condemned the United States, which he calls, “a stupid bully,” as a nation with a “history of reducing whole peoples, countries, and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust.” Said has actively urged his Egyptian readers to replace their naive belief in America as the defender of liberty and democracy with his supposedly more accurate picture of America as an habitual perpetrator of genocide.

Said has also called for the International Criminal Court to prosecute Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright, and General Wesley Clark as war criminals. According to Said, the genocidal actions of these American leaders make Slobodan Milosevic himself look like “a rank amateur in viciousness.” Said has even treated the very idea of American democracy a farce. He has belittled the reverence in which Americans hold the Constitution, which Said dismisses with the comment that it was written by “wealthy, white, slaveholding, Anglophilic men.”

Yet Edward Said is the most honored and influential theorist in academic area-studies today. Just last year, the Middle East Studies Association, many of whose members are associated with Title VI centers, joined its European counterparts in presenting Edward Said with a special award for his unparalleled contribution to Middle East studies. In his book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, Martin Kramer details the pervasive influence of Edward Said’s post-colonial theory on Middle East studies, as I myself have noted in my discussion of Kramer’s book.


This is the context in which we have to understand a Title VI-funded workshop for K-12 teachers that assigns only articles by Edward Said and his like-minded colleagues. Given the influence of Said’s post-colonial theory on Middle East studies in America, that workshop was in no way an isolated occurrence.

For all that, I do not argue that authors like Edward Said ought to be banned from Title-VI-funded courses. Contrary to David Ward’s claim, I have never said that Title VI centers should assign only material that I find politically acceptable. My complaint from the start has been that authors like Edward Said are too seldom balanced by authors who support American foreign policy. This was exactly the problem in the infamous Title VI-funded workshop.

For further evidence of bias among scholars associated with Title VI-funded centers, consider the website of the Hagop Kevorkian Center at NYU. This website features commentary by Kevorkian Center-affiliated scholars on the events of September 11, and on the war with Iraq. Of the essays that treat September 11, every one that takes a stand sharply criticizes American policy. Ella Shohat criticizes the America’s “crimes” of “oil driven hegemony” and America’s “murderous sanctions on Iraq.” Ariel Salzmann feels despair that America is threatening to attack Afghanistan instead of offering the Taliban “aid and mediation.” Bernard Haykel says that, “We should not send U.S. or Western troops and special forces into Afghanistan with the aim of arresting or killing Bin Laden.” Instead, says Hayel, we need to “reassess our foreign policies in the world.” And so on with several of the other commentators on September 11 and its aftermath. The Kevorkian Center’s Title VI-funded “Electronic Roundtable” on the war with Iraq is just as extreme and monolithic in its political perspective.

Of course, the reason NYU’s Title VI-funded center is uniformly critical of American foreign policy is that NYU’s Middle East Studies faculty is itself ideologically unbalanced. David Ward says it’s enough that projects funded by Title VI are governed according to standards of free speech and academic freedom. True, academic freedom and free speech must be protected. Free speech, however, is not an entitlement to a government subsidy. And unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated. The vigorous and open debate that’s supposed to flourish at our colleges and universities cannot exist without faculty members who can speak for divergent points of view. Yet, by rewarding politically one-sided programs with gigantic funding increases, Congress is actually removing any incentive for deans and provosts to bring in faculty members with diverse perspectives. At this point, Title VI funding increases are only stifling free debate.


Title VI-funded professors take Edward Said’s condemnation of scholars who cooperate with the American government very seriously. For years the beneficiaries of Title VI have leveled a boycott against the National Security Education Program, which supports foreign-language study for students who agree to work for national-security-related agencies after graduation.

David Ward’s treatment of the NSEP boycott is sheer obfuscation. According to Ward, “the higher education community strongly supports the NSEP program and we know of no efforts to kill the program.” Really? Then how do we to explain the decade long boycott of the NSEP by the African-, Latin American-, and Middle East Studies Associations? Since 1981, the directors of Title VI African National Resource Centers have agreed not to apply for, accept, or recommend to students any military or intelligence funding from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSEP, or any other such source. Shamefully, a mere two months after September 11, Title VI African Studies Center directors voted unanimously to sustain their boycott of military- and intelligence-related funding, including the NSEP.

The Title VI-supported scholars who boycott the NSEP claim to do so out of concern for their students’ safety. Supposedly, students could be harmed abroad if they are suspected of being spies. (In reality, of course, the students have no contact with defense or intelligence agencies until after they graduate.) But American scholars abroad are suspected of being spies, regardless of their funding source. And in fact, both opponents and supporters of the NSEP agree that there have been almost no actual cases of NSEP-funded students running into trouble overseas. Even the few recorded incidents might have happened anyway, regardless of funding source. Can you imagine these radical professors opposing the programs that once sent students to the segregated South to work for civil rights? Those programs were really dangerous. The NSEP is not. (For an excellent account of the NSEP boycott, see “Scholars Revive Boycott of U.S. Grants to Promote Language Training,” in the August 16, 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education. For a transcript of a public debate over the NSEP boycott, see the Chronicle of Higher Education Colloquy, “Tarnished as a spy?“)


Talk about student safety is nothing but a pretext for a politically motivated boycott of the NSEP by Title VI-funded scholars bitterly opposed to American foreign policy. That is made unequivocally clear by an early pro-boycott statement by the Association of Concerned African Scholars. That statement explains the boycott as a refusal to aid a U.S. policy that “[subverts] progressive governments and national liberation movements” throughout Africa.

For my earlier piece, “Ivory Scam,” I reported on a Ford Foundation study that clearly describes the NSEP boycott as politically motivated. That study acknowledges that during the 1980′s, “American scholars who supported U.S. policy…more or less withdrew from the African Studies community.” The same was true of U.S. policy supporters in other area-studies fields, except that it would be more accurate to say that supporters of U.S. policy were driven out of area studies, than that they “withdrew.”

Michigan State University, which receives area-studies funding under Title VI, actually passes out a letter that warns students against applying for NSEP fellowships. Although the letter admits that no undergraduate recipients of NSEP grants have actually suffered any negative consequences abroad, it does everything possible to scare potential NSEP applicants into fearing for their lives. And the letter’s dark hints about faculty objections to the program, combined with warnings that an NSEP grant could have an “impact” on their future careers, serve to signal to any bright young supporter of American foreign policy that an academic career is out of the question.

The boycott of the NSEP has already succeeded in driving the program out of first-tier universities, thereby depriving our defense and intelligence agencies of the services of some of America’s brightest young people. And as I reported in “Ivory Scam,” Title VI African Studies center directors and their colleagues are shunning a University of Wisconsin language center that broke the boycott and applied for an NSEP grant. That could easily result in a loss of funding for the courageous and patriotic scholars who run the Wisconsin program.

So David Ward is wrong. I have presented evidence that beneficiaries of Title VI do not support the NSEP, and in fact are doing everything in their power to destroy the program. Ward’s claims that boycotters would support the NSEP, if only it were moved out of the Department of Defense. But that would change the purpose and nature of the program itself, which is to stock our defense and intelligence agencies with speakers of foreign languages.

We know that transmissions from the September 11 hijackers went untranslated for want of Arabic speakers in our intelligence agencies. David Ward claims that I offer not a single example of a scholar who seeks to undermine American foreign policy. My reply is that the directors of the Title VI African-studies centers who voted unanimously, just after September 11, to reaffirm their boycott of the NSEP, have all acted to undermine America’s national security, and its foreign policy. And so has every other Title VI-funded scholar in Latin American-, African-, and Middle Eastern Studies who has upheld the boycott of the NSEP.

How can Congress permit professors who take American taxpayer dollars (on the claim that they are contributing to national security!) to boycott a program designed to bring desperately needed foreign-language expertise into our defense and intelligence agencies? How much longer can the scandal of Title VI and the NSEP boycott continue?


Here is what needs to happen: 1) Congress needs to create a supervisory board to manage Title VI. The Fulbright and National Security Education Programs already have such a board, and it is vitally necessary that Title VI have one as well. 2) Congress needs to pass an amendment that would take funding out of the hands of any Title VI center that engages in or abets a boycott of national security related scholarships. 3) As a sign to Deans and Provosts that our area-studies faculties must become more intellectually diverse, Congress needs to reduce the funding for Title VI. Specifically, the $20 million of funding added to Title VI in the wake of September 11 needs to be withdrawn and redirected to the Defense Language Institute, which could then issue scholarships for students interested in well paying jobs at our defense and intelligence agencies. I will have more to say about these reforms in my testimony. But if you agree that there is a problem with Title VI, please let the members of the Subcommittee on Select Education know how you feel.

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


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