Politics & Policy

UCLA Tests Congress

The university's Center for Near Eastern Studies is colliding with a recent reform of Title VI subsidies.

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.


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 highereducation 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.)


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.

For many years now, inspired by Martin Kramer’s path-breaking work, I have campaigned for reform of Title VI of the Higher Education Act. I testified before the House on this topic in 2003. (See my Hearing Both Sides of Title VI.) Now that reform has passed, special thanks are due to Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.), the great supporter of this legislation in the House, and to Senators John Ensign (R., Nev.), Judd Gregg (R., N.H.), and Mike Enzi (R., Wyo.), all of whom provided critical support. A compromise forged between Senator Enzi and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) more than two years ago largely held together this past summer, clearing the way for agreement on the bill. Congressman Howard Berman (D., Calif.) was a key player in hammering out a bipartisan compromise on the House side.


Reform of Title VI subsidies to Middle East Studies may now be facing its first test at UCLA. It’s all well and good that Congress has endorsed the principle of intellectual diversity in federally funded public-outreach programs. But will the Department of Education actually do anything when that principle is violated? Although the one-sided symposium on Gaza sponsored by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies hasn’t quite turned into a controversy on the level of Columbia University’s 2005 flap, it may be headed in that direction. What the critics of CNES need to understand is that the new law greatly strengthens their position. By registering a public complaint against CNES for bias in its public-outreach programs, critics can put the reform of Title VI to its first significant test.

January’s federally subsidized UCLA symposium on Gaza featured four sharp critics of Israel, but not a single supporter. (You can view podcasts of the four lectures here.) Unfortunately, the reportedly contentious question period was not recorded. Campus critics of the symposium, and of bias at CNES, include Judea Pearl, a prominent professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established in memory of his son (a reporter murdered by Islamist terrorists in Pakistan). Pearl first raised the conference issue in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, and detailed his concerns in a follow-up column in the Jewish Journal. Pearl and other critics of the CNES argue that the Gaza symposium was deeply biased, more a political rallying session than a reasoned debate between critics and supporters of Israel’s actions in Gaza. (See UCLA Symposium on Gaza Ignites Strong Criticism.) Critics also contend that CNES has only recently shifted from being a forum for genuine debate to being a politicized advocacy group.

The appointment of a new CNES director, Professor Susan Slyomovics, may have had something to do with this shift. A CNES critic present at the symposium approached Slyomovics privately after the panel and asked if she was planning any events that might present an alternative point of view. Reportedly, Slyomovics said she wasn’t. (See Reviving 1920’s Munich Beer Halls at UCLA, Courtesy of California Taxpayers.) In general, critics fear that the center as a whole has shifted toward a one-sided political perspectivea bias it did not previously have.

Even defenders of CNES seem to concede the bias of the presentations. Sondra Hale, chair of CNES’s Faculty Advisory Committee, has defended the symposium by bemoaning the presence of “neo-conservatives” in the audience and by affirming the need for “criticizing the state policies that have led to this calamity.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with presenting thoughtful criticism of “state policies,” but the invited critics were overwhelmingly one-sided. Sondra Hale herself is a lead organizer of the American academic movement to boycott Israel, a boycott that embodies a rather one-sided perspective on the Middle East.


While the anti-Israel boycott strikes me as extreme, it’s important to affirm that thoughtful advocates of an anti-Israel boycott do have a place in programs of Middle Eastern Studies. And we should not object to exposing students or members of the public to the four critics of Israel who spoke at the UCLA symposium. The problem is that perfectly respectable opposing views were excluded, and that this exclusion may well be part of a broader and intentional pattern of political bias at UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies. While individual professors might want to personally advocate a boycott of Israel, it’s hard to see how a federally subsidized Middle East Studies centeras a centercould boycott Israel and still encourage balanced debate. (I’m not suggesting that CNES is boycotting Israel, but simply raising a hypothetical question.)

Responding to the flap over the Gaza symposium and bias at UCLA, Chancellor Gene Block issued a statement on academic freedom. Block’s statement affirms that “scholarly balance” is central to the ethos of academic freedom at UCLA. Yet he attempts to placate critics by claiming that overall balance is achieved at the university level. The Gaza symposium may have been stacked against Israel, he implies, but visiting Israeli officials have addressed the law school and other sections of the university. As Judea Pearl points out, however, at a university, visiting officials aren’t on a par with scholarly panelists. More important, Congress has now called for intellectual diversity and balanced debate within federally supported centers (at least in congressionally mandated and supported public-outreach programs).

So Judea Pearl and other critics of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies now have the option of assembling a carefully documented and calmly reasoned complaint about a pattern of bias in CNES’s public-outreach programs. Such a complaint could then be referred to the Department of Education, which is now legally obligated to consider the issue when renewing area-studies grants. Not that a failure to renew UCLA’s grant would be the best outcome. The best outcome would be a return to CNES’s longstanding policy of hosting wide-ranging debate on politics and policy in the Middle East.


The messy matter of federal subsidies to university programs of Middle East Studies leaves us with few good options. Although the new legislation shelters the college classroom from interference, focusing instead on minimum standards of fairness for congressionally mandated public-outreach programs, some will advocate cutting off all federal subsidies to university programs of area studies. That would avoid federal involvement, leaving universities entirely on their own.

The problem is that there is no realistic prospect of ending those subsidies. Even the Reagan administration, after seriously considering the option, declined to zero out Title VI. Given Democratic control of Congress and the White House, cancelling the program isn’t even a remote option right now.

Of course, nobody is forcing universities to take federal subsidies. The funding is part of what is effectively a voluntary contract between a given school and the federal government. In exchange for subsidies, area-studies programs agree to promote the goals and follow the broad guidelines laid down by Congress. Only a small portion of area-studies programs nationwide actually receive federal subsidies, and any given program is free to decline federal funding, thereby rejecting all constraints.

Given all this, the best legislative course is to protect the professor’s autonomy in the classroom, while restoring reasonable oversight to congressionally funded and mandated programs of public outreach in those universities that have voluntarily joined the program. Congress has done exactly that, and UCLA may well pose the first test of its reform. UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies is now obligated to encourage debate and discussion from a wide range of perspectives in its programs of public outreach. So it must either convince a skeptical UCLA community that it has not been one-sided, or reverse its troubling new policies, or face the withdrawal of federal subsidies.

Then again, UCLA could simply choose not to reapply for further Title VI grants. Let’s see what actually happens.

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