Politics & Policy

Taking Sides on Title VI

Middle East Studies reform goes partisan.

In “Saudi in the Classroom,” I explained how the Saudis are using federal subsidies to university programs of Middle East Studies (under Title VI of the Higher Education Act) as a kind of Trojan horse to gain influence over American K-12 education. Unfortunately, House Democrats seem willing to let the Saudis get away with it. Although the Senate has already passed a very reasonable bipartisan compromise on Title VI (crafted by Senators Kennedy and Enzi), the House appears to have buckled to pressure from the higher education lobby, and gutted nearly every previously proposed reform of this troubled federal program. The radical professors who control MESA (the Middle East Studies Association) have been pressing to gut Title VI reform, and the House Democrats have clearly listened. When you compare the House Democrats’ stance on Title VI with the conduct of both parties in previous years, you get a surprisingly clear illustration of the shift toward radicalism and partisanship by the post-2006 Dems.

There’s still a chance to save Title VI reform, when the bill re-authorizing the Higher Education Act (which has cleared committee) hits the House floor, and again when it goes to conference. But right now things are looking perilous. We’ll see below how the fate of Title VI is a leading indicator of House Democrats’ new posture: more interested in playing to their radical base than in getting something productive done.

#ad#Although the House Democrats have added a couple toothless reforms to Title VI to disguise their capitulation to the radical professors, you can tell these changes are window-dressing by looking at what the Dems have left out. Not only does the House bill omit the Senate’s stronger and more contested reform proposals, it also leaves out a series of reforms that no one (to my knowledge) has ever publicly opposed. Amazingly, some of the omitted reforms have even been recommended by a prestigious non-partisan study that the Democrats themselves originally called for. In other words, the House Democrats are now so beholden to radical professors and the higher education lobby that they are ignoring their own blue ribbon commission. I’ll get to Saudi manipulation of Title VI in a bit, but first let’s look at the heretofore non-controversial reforms the House Democrats have just gutted.

Opposing Apple Pie

Most people know that intercepted transmissions from the 9/11 hijackers went unrecognized for want of government translators. Six years later, the shortage of accomplished speakers of Middle Eastern languages remains acute. The core purpose of Title VI (originally called the National Defense Education Act) is to get speakers of strategic languages into government service. Clearly the program isn’t working, and sad to say, some of this is intentional. Many radical professors actually boycott national security related scholarship programs. Thus, some of the very same academics who benefit from Title VI subsidies are actively trying to undermine the core purpose of the program.

There are other reasons why Title VI subsidies have consistently failed to bring speakers of strategic languages into government service. For one thing, the government doesn’t even have a coordinated way of obtaining basic information about which languages are most needed in which agency, and which subsidized university programs have the best record of sending students into government service. One of the key findings of the report on Title VI by the National Research Council (a study called for by the Democrats themselves), is that we lack data on the actual “impacts” and “outcomes” of Title VI subsidies.

#page#The Senate’s bipartisan reform package addresses these problems with provisions for consulting a broad spectrum of government agencies on areas of linguistic need, and insuring that subsidized academic programs encourage government service on the part of their students. There is also a requirement that subsidized programs conduct post-graduation job-placement surveys, as well as a provision calling on the Dept. of Education to take past job-placement performance into account when deciding on renewing a given university’s subsidies.

It’s tough to see how a reasonable person could object to these proposals. I’ve never heard a public argument against any of them. Even Senator Kennedy and the Senate Democrats have adopted them. Only a radical professor who wanted to receive government largesse without any accountability — perhaps even with the intention of undermining the very purpose of the subsidy itself — could object. Yet the House has omitted even these utterly reasonable proposals. The non-partisan National Research Council report also recommends that the Dept. of Education draw up a biennial report on the functioning of Title VI, and make its findings public. This perfectly harmless recommendation is included in the Senate version of Title VI, yet omitted from the House’s gutted bill.

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Dems’ Sharp Turn

Something quite new and different is happening with the post-2006 House Democrats. Title VI reform has been a bone of contention for years, and yet up until now neither party allowed the battle to turn partisan. When I testified before the House on this issue in 2003, the hearings were staffed on a bipartisan basis. Republicans made a point of consulting with the Democrats and coming up with a compromise bill, which passed without opposition on the floor of the House. From the start, Title VI reform has seen an intense pull and tug between scholarly associations (like MESA) and the higher education lobby, on the one hand, and critics of higher education, like Martin Kramer and me, on the other. Yet both political parties acknowledged problems with the program, and the need for substantial reform. That’s still the case in the Senate, but in the House, the Democrats have gutted even the most non-controversial proposals for reform–and against the advice of their own commission’s report.

Saudi Money

So what about Saudi money? I won’t repeat the extraordinary story of how the Saudi’s have managed to capture and use the “public outreach” programs mandated under Title VI to shape America’s K-12 education on the Middle East. You can read about that in “Saudi in the Classroom” (linked above). The only good news out of the House Democrats’ version of Title VI is that they have at least implicitly acknowledged the problem. The House bill includes a new provision requiring programs supported by Title VI subsidies to report foreign gifts.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the Democrats’ foreign gift reporting provision can’t be taken seriously. In the first place, to the best of my understanding, there already is a foreign gift reporting provision in effect for institutions of higher education. (I welcome comments, corrections, or additional information from readers on the current status and actual operation of this provision.) I’m referring to Section 1011f. “Disclosure of foreign gifts” of Title 20 of the U.S. Code.

As I read it, existing law seems already to require institutions of higher education to disclose large foreign gifts to the Secretary of Education. (It would be very interesting to see whether colleges and universities are actually complying with this law.) But even if the Democrats’ foreign gift reporting provision is not entirely redundant, the million dollar threshold for reporting in the Democrats’ bill is obviously way too high. Section 1011f already requires colleges and universities to report gifts over $250,000. So by Congress’s own existing standard, the proposed foreign gift reporting provision is four times higher than it ought to be.

#page#Although the Saudis have occasionally given gifts in the tens of millions of dollars to various universities, these tend to fund special centers, and are therefore made public in any case. With a one million dollar threshold, it should be relatively easy for the Saudis, if necessary, to slightly reduce any covert gifts, and disburse them to a few more Title VI institutions. And much of the Saudi influence is indirect, as when federally subsidized public outreach centers adopt Saudi developed teacher training curricula. So disclosing direct financial gifts only begins to get at the mechanisms of foreign control over this program.

No Fix

Unfortunately, the House Democrats have killed off every reform that might actually expose and correct foreign influence over Title VI. For one thing, House Democrats have now rejected the idea of an advisory board for this program. Yet, like nearly every other government scholarship program, Title VI originally had an advisory board. The board was eliminated in the early nineties, and program oversight has suffered ever since. The proposed advisory board would have no power other than the power to cast sunlight — for example, by determining the nature and extent to which foreign governments might be influencing the program.

#ad#In place of an advisory board, the Senate came up with the compromise of a grievance procedure. Note that grievances would have applied not to college course-work (the college curriculum is explicitly protected from federal interference, and in any case, with the exception of some language classes, Title VI does not directly fund college course work). The Senate’s proposed grievance procedure applies instead to the “public outreach programs” that run K-12 teacher-training workshops and other public seminars. These public outreach activities are not part of the college curriculum, but are creatures of Congress. Without either an advisory board or a grievance procedure, the public outreach programs are totally without oversight, and this is precisely how the Saudis have been able to turn Title VI into a Trojan horse for their own educational goals.

The troubled Title VI program cannot be fixed by a foreign gift reporting provision, which may well be redundant, and in any case has a reporting threshold four times higher than previous congressional requirements. The problem of foreign influence on Title VI can only be solved with some form of systematic oversight — be it an advisory board able to hold public hearings, or a grievance procedure. The fig-leaf of a near-meaningless foreign gift reporting provision is an admission by the Democrats that there is a serious problem of foreign influence over Title VI, but it is not a solution.

Turning Partisan

Although Title VI reform has never before been a partisan issue, it may well become one. If the House Democrats manage to gut the Senate compromise, reform will be dead for the moment, but very legitimately available to Republicans as an issue from now on. Do the Democrats in Congress really want to tie their fortunes to the radicals who dominate academic programs of Middle East Studies? By bowing to the professors and cutting out even the most non-controversial reforms of Title VI (including ideas suggested by their own commission’s report) the Dems are effectively playing into every “soft on defense” stereotype. In the past, Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate have been able to piece together a compromise on this issue. It’s a measure of how extreme House Democrats have become that they have dumped even the most non-controversial compromises from the bill.

The good news is that House Education and Labor Committee Chairman, George Miller, has left a slight opening for compromise. At committee markup, under pressure from Michigan Republican Pete Hoekstra (the original sponsor of Title VI reform), Miller held out the prospect of agreeing to further changes when the bill reaches the floor.

Is there anything you can do to help? There certainly is. You can contact your congressional representatives and ask them to support a strong program of reform for Title VI of the Higher Education Act. You might tell them that you favor the provisions of the Senate bill, and that you are disappointed with the near elimination of any Title VI reform in the House’s version of the Higher Education Act. Ask congressmen to adopt the provisions of the Senate bill in the House, and ask Senators (especially on the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor & Pensions) to fight hard for the Senate version of Title VI reform in conference. The Title VI controversy will likely be resolved one way or the other over the next few months. But that’s only for now. We may be witnessing the beginning, not the end, of Title VI’s life as a fully partisan issue.

Stanley Kurtz is an NRO contributing editor.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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