Politics & Policy

Opening The Classroom Door

Making schools safe for U.S. foreign policy.

Federally supported Middle East-studies programs may soon face real reform. For years, area-studies scholars have abused the taxpayer by calling for special subsidies in the name of national security–then boycotting scholarships designed to bring students into our defense and intelligence agencies. And professors have been using government-mandated public-outreach programs to feed one-sided attacks on our foreign policy to the nation’s K-12 teachers. But the game may now be up. The House has passed H.R. 3077, which helps curb these abuses by reforming Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which subsidizes academic area studies. The Senate takes up the issue next year.

Yet proponents of reform cannot rest easy. H.R. 3077 has been the target of a steady stream of attacks from the academy, and powerful pressure is being brought on the Senate to gut the bill. Again and again college administrators, professors, students, and lobbyists for the higher-education community have condemned H.R. 3077 as a threat to academic freedom. The critics claim that this bill will put the federal government in charge of the college classroom. This is, however, simply untrue. H.R. 3077 will help curb the greatest threat to academic freedom we face: a bias on campus so strong that supporters of our foreign policy are largely shut out of debate and discussion, especially at the faculty level. But H.R. 3077 achieves this without infringing on the autonomy of the professor in the classroom.

I strongly support professorial autonomy, and the attacks on H.R. 3077 almost uniformly fail to acknowledge that the bill explicitly denies the newly created International Advisory Board any power to “mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.” This language was inserted at the insistence of the higher-education community itself. I have no problem with it, and never have. On the contrary, I see this language as a welcome clarification of the true purpose and effect of H.R. 3077.

H.R. 3077 doesn’t silence anyone. It bans nobody’s speech. H.R. 3077 doesn’t stop a single professor from thinking, writing, or teaching as he sees fit. What this bill does do is offer positive incentives that encourage open debate and discussion of international issues from diverse perspectives. That is not an inhibition on free speech; it is promotion of it.

Let’s take a look at what H.R. 3077 actually stipulates. First keep in mind that, other than language instruction, Title VI funding does not support college-classroom activity. When I testified before Congress last June on politically one-sided readings and events funded by Title VI, I took my examples from public-outreach programs, which are mandated by Congress as a condition for receiving Title VI subsidies. Typically, these programs feature seminars for K-12 teachers on developments in the Middle East or other parts of the world. The programs are not part of the college curriculum. Frankly, college professors don’t much like organizing outreach programs to begin with, since they take time away from teaching and research.

But time and again, we’ve seen congressionally mandated public-outreach programs that preach a one-sided view of American foreign policy to our K-12 teachers. It is simply unreasonable to ask the American taxpayer to fund seminars that train our elementary-school teachers to oppose American foreign policy.

Of course, the solution here is the one John Stuart Mill would have approved. Even though we’re only talking about special public-outreach programs, we should never ban readings just because they criticize American foreign policy. But we can legitimately value including readings from many perspectives. All H.R. 3077 does is to say that if a particular area-studies program has a great track record of putting on public-outreach programs that highlight many different points of view, it should get a leg up in the competition for Title VI subsidies. That doesn’t ban anyone’s speech. And it doesn’t interfere with the college classroom. But it does create a gentle, positive incentive for intellectual diversity in congressionally mandated programs.

Of course, the core function of Title VI is its support for graduate students. Now it’s all well and good that Title VI monies should support at least some area-studies students who specialize in topics like ancient Chinese philosophy or medieval Persian art history. But the reason why Congress put 20 million extra dollars into Title VI after September 11 was that we still don’t have enough Arabic translators to handle the transmissions we intercept from potential terrorists. And Congress is plowing extra money into Title VI because we still lack intelligence agents who know enough about the languages and cultures of the Middle East to undertake effective covert operations. Unlike area-studies programs, departments of philosophy and art history have no special subsidies written into a title of the Higher Education Act. So if these special subsidies to area studies are to make any sense, we need to ensure that they go where Congress intended them to in the first place.

H.R. 3077 would accomplish this in two ways. First, it would privilege area-studies programs with a demonstrably strong record of training students for government service. Second, the Advisory Board created by H.R. 3077 would be able to survey and report on the record of the field as a whole in training students for government service. And make no mistake: There have been very serious problems on this score–problems I discussed in some detail in my congressional testimony last June. For years, the Middle East Studies Association, the African Studies Association, and the Latin American Studies Association have run boycotts of any fellowships designed to bring students into national security-related government service. Supposedly these boycotts are designed to protect students from being suspected as spies when they travel overseas. But I’ve shown that they are in fact politically motivated. Of course, no professor should have to support government policy if he doesn’t want to, but it’s another matter when Title VI-funded centers start actively discouraging students and peers from serving their government.

We know that Title VI-funded African-studies centers voted unanimously to boycott and effectively destroy a center at the University of Wisconsin that applied for a National Security Education Program fellowship. This is why H.R. 3077 has created an Advisory Board to help monitor developments in the field. Fortunately, H.R. 3077 makes it clear that a key purpose of Title VI is to bolster our homeland security. And this bill also makes it clear that colleges must not block access to students by recruiters from government agencies. Without an Advisory Board, these provisions would not be well enforced, but with the board to hold periodic public hearings and issue reports, people with evidence of Title VI misappropriations will at least have some recourse.. I myself only uncovered the secret attempt of Title VI African-studies centers to punish Wisconsin for accepting a national-security scholarship because a courageous whistleblower came to me with the evidence.

Considering H.R. 3077’s unobtrusiveness, one might legitimately ask whether it’s really going to make any difference at all in the overall bias of contemporary area-studies programs. Granted, it would be better to have real debate from diverse perspectives in our one-sided academy, but how will fixing public-outreach programs or encouraging graduate students to serve their country change any of that? It looks like this bill doesn’t really do anything to open up the college classroom to real debate. This is the real challenge to pose to proponents of H.R. 3077.

My answer to this challenge is that, over the long term, there is good reason to hope that H.R. 3077 might help bring change to the field of area studies. Again, the mechanism has nothing to do with banning anyone’s speech, or controlling anyone’s teaching. It’s really a question of incentives. I suspect there will be a kind of trickle-down effect from the call for diversity in public-outreach programs, and from the encouragement of students to serve their government. Colleges might begin to recognize that their outreach programs will be more balanced and effective, and their graduate students more likely to serve their country, if they bring on at least a few faculty members to balance the radicals who now dominate the field. But no one is forcing colleges to do this.

Over the long term, I think we’re poised for generational change anyway. Students living in the post-9/11 world see things differently than the sixties generation. But the tendency of area studies to structure itself as a closed guild with a political litmus test for membership could block this new generation from entering the field. Again, the best we can do to encourage change is to create a few positive incentives for real diversity and debate–without taking away anyone’s right to speak.

And don’t underestimate H.R. 3077’s explicit call for Title VI money to meet national-security needs. If the Education Department takes that call seriously, we could see real change. There are around 125 programs of Middle-Eastern studies, yet only about 17 receive subsidies under Title VI. If at least some of those subsidized programs are geared toward students who actually want to serve their government, we will finally have broken out of the in-group of post-colonial theorists who keep almost all Title VI-funded programs in the same intellectual rut. Although their public statements feature false claims about H.R. 3077’s supposed interference with academic freedom, what the moaning professors most fear may be the prospect that programs other than theirs will get the subsidy money instead.

Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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