The University of North Carolina is defending its federally funded Middle East studies program after the Education Department accused the school of advancing an ideological agenda.
In a letter to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, the department charged that the program promotes a positive view of Islam while virtually ignoring other religions. Its investigation was sparked by a complaint from a member of Congress who found a conference sponsored by the consortium to be biased against Israel.
The Education Department ordered the university to revise its offerings or risk losing its $235,000 federal grant under the Title VI program. In its response, the university did not offer to change its programs but said it would enhance oversight of the consortium and better record how spending matches the law’s requirements.
The Education Department’s action came under fire from academics and others who charged that the department was politicizing the grant program and violating principles of academic freedom. But its move was in line with conservative critics who have long accused universities of harboring anti-Semitic bias.
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to defend the consortium and to argue that the law does not allow the department to require that grantees “espouse its favored viewpoint or further this administration’s anti-Muslim agenda.”
The ACLU letter also expressed concern that the investigation could affect other institutions that receive Title VI funding.
“They are now on notice that, to continue their relationship with the federal government, they must espouse a particular viewpoint regarding Israel to the satisfaction of the government and must tread lightly when it comes to any curricular content that could somehow be perceived as portraying Islam and Muslims in a positive light,” wrote Ronald Newman, national political director of the ACLU, and Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
A spokeswoman for the Education Department declined to say whether other universities are under investigation for misuse of Title VI grants.
Title VI grants are meant to fund programs that train students in foreign languages and international affairs to advance U.S. national security and economic interests. Together with a sister program, the government spends about $72 million per year to support about 100 national resource centers on world affairs and languages, among other things.
In his letter to university officials, Robert King, assistant secretary at the Education Department, said the program was sponsoring activities that are perhaps consistent with “general principles of academic freedom” but are “plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.”
In a formal response sent last week, the vice chancellor for research at UNC, Terry Magnuson, defended the consortium as offering a range of programming. He said programs on Iranian art and film, which the department singled out as inconsistent with the law, are part of a broader study of language, which is a core part of the federal grant.
He also wrote that the consortium had offered programming on positive aspects of many religions, not just Islam. He pointed to a visit to a Jewish center to explore Jewish traditions, presentations on Christianity in Lebanon and presentations on religious diversity throughout the Middle East.
He also said that two programs that were singled out for criticism were not funded with federal dollars.
But Magnuson also said that the consortium would “re-examine its procedures to ensure that its Title VI-funded activities continue to match the purposes and requirements” of the program. He said the sponsors would establish an advisory board to oversee activities and create clear records showing how each expenditure relates to the purposes and requirements of the program.
A spokeswoman for the Education Department, Angela Morabito, said the agency is reviewing the responses. “We look forward to working with them to ensure that the Consortium complies with congressional requirements,” she said.