Title VI and Middle East Studies: What You Should Know

by Bekah Wolf | published November 14, 2014 - 5:04pm

In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.

What is Title VI?

Title VI of the Higher Education Act, or HEA, provides federal funding to support teaching of foreign languages and area studies at US universities. The law has been on the books since the Cold War. Its purpose is to facilitate the training of experts in fields of study deemed relevant to US foreign policy. Russian language centers were some of the first programs funded under the HEA. Today, Title VI funds many Middle East studies programs in addition to international studies and language programs for every region of the world.

What are the claims made about Middle East studies centers with Title VI funding?

The Brandeis Center, along with a coalition of similar groups, has launched a campaign to police scholarly work and teaching in Middle East studies departments across the country. The principal tactic of this campaign is to equate any criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, and thereby declare that entire Middle East programs are intrinsically biased against Israel. Their end goal is to influence the political outlook of academic work on US campuses, applauding work that takes an unquestioningly positive view of Israeli state policy and censoring or sanctioning work that is critical of the acts or policies of Israel. That attempt to impose orthodoxy is a project antithetical to the mission of an academic institution, which should be committed to wide-ranging research and analysis unbounded by the political agendas that often dictate government decisions.

As part of this political campaign the Brandeis Center recently issued a “white paper” advancing three main arguments:

  • Middle East studies programs at several universities are filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias;
  • Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires funding recipients to provide a “balanced” view, at least of Israel. “Balance” essentially means inserting more sympathetic views of Israel; and
  • Congress has previously concluded that Middle East studies programs are “biased” against Israel, and thus should implement a grievance and investigation procedure for the reporting of such bias.

What does this campaign demand?

The AMCHA Initiative, Brandeis Center and allied groups demand either that Congress cancel all Title VI funding of Middle East studies programs, or that it mandate that the Department of Education establish a mechanism to receive complaints of “bias” and then investigate academic centers in order to coerce those centers to promote pro-Israel viewpoints.

They suggest the formation of a committee to oversee all Middle East studies programs and search for “bias.” This committee, they suggest, should include “academics from Israel studies programs.” They want academics perceived to be sympathetic to Israel to oversee programming in Middle East studies.

Is there evidence of “bias” in Middle East Studies programs?

The Brandeis Center relies heavily on a “study” published by AMCHA about UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES). The study contends that 93 percent of CNES programs related to Israel are “biased” and that the programming has a “disproportionate” focus on Israel.

The study is plagued with problems, not least of which are overly broad and unreasonable definitions of “anti-Israel bias” and “anti-Semitism.” Anything straying from narrow pro-Israel orthodoxy is automatically judged to be “biased,” as in the case of the following events:

Thus, AMCHA’s definition of “bias” is so expansive that it includes events sponsored by J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, and the Jewish Studies Program at UCLA.

AMCHA’s study also fails to place its analysis in the context of CNES programming about countries other than Israel-Palestine. It is typical for scholars to criticize aspects of the nation-states they study. Does UCLA’s CNES shy away from exposing problems in the policies of other Middle Eastern governments? The answer is clearly no, if events like “The Persistence of the Past: How Violence and Genocide in Ottoman Turkey Affect Our World Today,” “Stopping the Nuclear Threat from Iran,” “Egypt: Stillborn Revolution?” and “The Constitutional and Legal Status of Non-Shiites in Iran” are any indication.

AMCHA’s claims of “anti-Semitism” in CNES events fare no better when subjected to scrutiny. For instance, AMCHA’s examples of “anti-Semitic” activity at CNES include statements by speakers that Israel “den[ies] the absolute basic inalienable human rights of Palestinians,” that Israel “was created through colonialism” and that “colonialism and settler-colonialism are both inherently and unequal and unjust systems.” These statements are judgments about the history and policies of the Israeli state and government, and express no animus toward Jewish people because of their religion or ethnicity.

As an open letter from professors of Jewish studies concludes, AMCHA’s definition of anti-Semitism is so broad as to render the term meaningless.

These and other problems prompted the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom-North America to publish an open letter calling on AMCHA “to withdraw [its] report and to apologize to all those whom it falsely and tendentiously accuses of anti-Semitism.”

CNES at UCLA has now issued its own detailed rebuttal of the accusations made by the AMCHA Initiative and others.

Does Title VI require “balance”?

The Brandeis Center’s report claims that when Congress amended the language of Title VI of the Higher Education Act in 2008 to refer to “diverse perspectives” in federally funded programs, it intended to require all programs to provide a “balanced” treatment of all subjects. While the Brandeis Center admits that the phrase “diverse perspectives” has never been defined, it suggests that the Department of Education can and should define it.

The report’s characterization of the HEA, however, is inaccurate. In 2008, Congressional Republicans tried, but failed, to include an evaluation of “diverse perspectives” as a criterion for assessing applications for Title VI funding. Rather, existing law simply requires applicants to explain how they intend to provide “diverse perspectives,” not that diversity of perspectives is a condition of funding. The law is clear that Congress considered and rejected a “diverse perspectives” criterion as a condition of Title VI funding. (See “Selection of Certain Grant Recipients: Selection Criteria” section [20 USC §1127(b)].)

Congress correctly rejected the position now taken by the Brandeis Center report because it would place the Department of Education in the impossible and constitutionally suspect position of policing Middle East studies departments for “diverse perspectives” -- an imprecise and subjective standard that, if applied, would pose a substantial threat to academic freedom.

How does this campaign threaten academic freedom and dissent?

Constitutional protections of free speech are critical to the missions of universities. In fact, in Shelton v. Tucker (1960) the Supreme Court said that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Consistently, from Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) to Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (1998), and in other instances, federal courts have prohibited government interference with the content of speech in educational institutions. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (1943), the Supreme Court clearly affirmed that there are no circumstances under which the government can legitimately determine what is “orthodox,” whether in politics or religious beliefs: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

Congress clearly understood this matter when, as part of the 2008 amendments to Title VI of the HEA, they included the following qualification: “Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction.” (20 USC §1132-2: Rule of Construction)

This section is explicitly referenced in the grant application form for National Resource Centers and Foreign Language and Area Studies Programs. Thus, both Congress and the Department of Education have specifically acknowledged that they do not have the authority or the intent to prescribe to institutions of higher education what they must teach.

At the same time, universities are already obligated to eliminate discrimination against students on the basis of race, color or national origin, among other identity characteristics. (See 42 USC. §2000d et seq [1964] and 20 USC. §§1681-1688 [1972].) There are ample mechanisms on the federal, state and local level that protect students from discrimination in higher education. Most prominently, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme to address discrimination, including anti-Semitism. In fact, the Brandeis Center and its partners, including the Zionist Organization of America and the AMCHA Initiative, among others, have used this process to file complaints against at least four universities asserting that Palestine activism creates a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. Four such cases were dismissed after burdensome and lengthy investigations determined the claims were unfounded and that the expression in question was protected under the First Amendment.

The Brandeis Center now seeks to duplicate the existing avenues for redress of cases of anti-Semitism by imposing a “diverse perspectives” requirement and enforcement mechanism in the Title VI funding structure. Existing law is more than adequate to deal with real instances of anti-Semitism on campuses. The reforms urged in the Brandeis Center report will create new opportunities for non-governmental, politically motivated organizations to misuse federal power to censor speech at universities that is critical of Israeli state policy or sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians. In so doing it would impose a political orthodoxy in a way that would threaten academic freedom and the vitally important role that academic inquiry plays in the exploration of complex notions of identity, belonging, dispossession, statehood and citizenship in the Middle East.

Is the Brandeis Center’s white paper a reliable source?

Finally, it is worth noting that the Brandeis Center’s report is filled with inaccurate citations and misrepresentations of the Congressional record. These are more than simple typographical errors. The Brandeis Center has claimed that a Congressional hearing, along with the head of the subcommittee itself, have already concluded that Middle East studies programs are biased, and have attempted to prove this claim by citing to the record. Referring to a hearing held by the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in June 2003, the Brandeis Center writes:

Thus, the committee concluded that the “Department of Education has no way of assessing whether the [outreach programs conducted by Title VI-funded Middle East Studies centers] give a fair, historically accurate and balanced view of the subject presented and thus fulfill the statutory purpose of providing not only language instruction, but ‘full understanding of areas, regions and countries in which such language is commonly used.’ (pp. 11-12) [Emphasis added]

This quote refers not to a committee conclusion but to testimony provided by the American Jewish Congress, as is clear in the record. (Even the citation for the report on the June 2003 hearing, “Id. at 164 (quoting the statute)” referring to “H.R. REP. NO. 804-811, at 163 (2005),” is incorrect. The first three digits of any House of Representatives report should refer to the Congressional session, which are numbered biannually. Congress has not been meeting for over 1,600 years.)

The Brandeis Center report also cites a statement by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) on the need to “update programs under Title VI to reflect our national security needs in the post-9/11 era” as being made at the same hearing in June 2003. But Rep. Hoekstra was not present at the hearing. His statement actually comes from a debate on the House floor of HR 3077, which failed to pass the Senate. (Congressional Record, October 21, 2003) This bill was the first concerted attempt by precursors of AMCHA and the Brandeis Center to create a new mechanism for preventing “anti-Israel bias” in Middle East studies programs.    

What’s the bottom line?

The Brandeis Center, as well as AMCHA and other organizations, are seeking to stifle legitimate protected speech on college campuses and restrict the free speech and academic freedom rights of those with whom they disagree. In addition to pressuring universities to punish students and academics for their advocacy for Palestinian rights, they are relying on shoddy “studies” and a misinterpretation of the law to convince lawmakers and officials at the Department of Education that Middle East studies programs are in need of regulation or defunding because of their “biased” content.

The truth is that these organizations have presented no credible evidence of bias in these programs and no legal basis for demanding that the government monitor and regulate the content or curriculum of an academic institution. In the distribution of funding, Congress and the Department of Education must abide by the strictures that the First Amendment places on the government’s ability to dictate the content of academic speech, despite what some lobbyists might claim.

Academic institutions and associations that wish to express concern about the proposals to monitor Middle East studies programs and dictate their content can contact the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, at 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327) or 1-202-401-3000 or by e-mail at arne.duncan@ed.gov.

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