The Corner

Students Who Grade Themselves

Cock your ears in the direction of the offices of MESA (the Middle East Studies Association) or the Higher Education lobby, and right about now you should be hearing a loud collective moan. The National Research Council has just issued a stinging report on the system of federal subsidies to programs of Middle East Studies (and other area studies programs) known as Title VI. The upshot of the NRC’s report on Title VI is that it’s no longer acceptable for the federal government to continue handing out millions of dollars in no-strings subsidies to universities that don’t deliver. A program designed to train students in strategically critical foreign languages, and to help stock our foreign service and our defense and intelligence agencies with knowledgeable experts, is not doing its job and has got to become accountable. So says the NRC report, and of course this is exactly what critics of Middle East Studies like Martin Kramer and myself have been saying for years.

I’ve had my suspicions about this NRC investigation, chiefly because it was the brainchild of the higher education lobby. The academy’s strategy was to deflect calls for a serious system of accountability for its subsidies by pointing to this upcoming NRC report. Given that, I feared the report would be a whitewash. Instead the National Research Council’s investigation of Title VI has actually echoed critics’ calls for serious reform. NRC is now demanding an array of performance measures, insisting that universities do a better job of cooperating with those who seek accountability, and proposing the collection and release of a wide array of data to the public.

The NRC report also cuts sharply against the academy’s insistence that its subsidies be strictly segregated from any contact with the Department of Defense or intelligence agencies. Instead, the report demands greatly increased coordination between the Department of Education, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

As for accountability, I’ll give just one example. You want to know why virtually no-one in our government speaks Arabic? I’ll tell you why. Right now (get this!), students who receive Title VI fellowships rate their own language proficiency. Directly endorsing the complaints of critics, the NRC calls for an end to student self-rating and the development of valid and reliable language proficiency measures instead. This means that in the competition for federal subsidies, schools that focus on language preparation and the inculcation of skills that a foreign service officer or intelligence analyst might actually need are going to get a leg up. Schools that focus on politicized theory course at the expense of real language preparation will be in trouble.

So the report is a triumph for critics of Title VI. And note that this committee was not even charged with investigating some of the key complaints about Title VI: politically motivated boycotts of defense-related scholarships, and deep bias in the “outreach programs” designed to instruct K-12 teachers about the Middle East. Put those problems together with this report and you’ve clearly got a system of subsidized Middle East Studies programs in need of some serious fixing.

The committee also recommends increased federal funding for programs in strategically important languages and cultures. It would be great if we had a Title VI program that worked well enough to justify such investment. But the message of the report is clear: reform has got to come first. That’s especially true, given that problems like politicized boycotts and bias in the outreach programs weren’t even addressed by this committee.

Before we even think about pouring additional money into this obviously broken program, let’s fix it. Congress needs to digest this report, and then do something about it. Everyone from the Department of Education to the higher education lobby has been delaying reform on the claim that the NRC report would solve everything. Well, the NRC report is out and the critics of Title VI have been vindicated. MESA and the higher ed lobby have been hoist on their own petard. Stay tuned for more in the coming days.

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

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