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US Government threatens to cut funding for Middle East studies at Duke University

By Yehudit Tzfat - October 01, 2019
Section: [Main News]
Tags: [Education]

Amid controversy and concerns that the United States Department of Education would withhold funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES), the program received its grant for the 2019-2020 school year. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched an investigation into the CMES in June at the behest of Republican Congressman George Holdings for what he alleged was the centre’s “anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” In particular, Holdings took issue with the CMES conference titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.”

The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to the program jointly run by Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in August expressing its concern “that most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorised.” Title VI is a federal grant program that supports international studies and foreign language programs at American universities. 

The letter criticised the consortium for a purported “lack of balance.” The Education Department indicated that “there is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.”

Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, replied to the department’s letter. He argued that a “positive appreciation” for all religions in the Middle East is immersed in all of their activities. 

Magnuson also corrected the Education Department’s assumption that the events singled out were funded by Title VI. 

“Your letter identifies two activities that you consider to be inappropriate for Title VI funding, out of more than 100 programs that the Consortium organises or promotes each year,” Magnuson wrote. “Neither of these activities, as it happens, were supported with Title VI funding.”

In order to continue receiving federal funding, the CMES was required by the department to submit a revised schedule of this year’s activities showing how they promote foreign language learning and the “national security interests and economic stability of the United States.”

Two different emails obtained by Duke University’s newspaper, The Chronicle, indicated that the CMES received their federal grant for this academic year. 

An email dated 23 September from Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Duke University Centre for International and Global Studies, stated he was informed of the programme’s funding.

Another email on 24 September from Eve Duffy, associate vice provost for global affairs at Duke University, confirmed the federal grant was fulfilled.

Scholars and pro-speech groups came to the consortium’s defence. Nineteen academic associations published a joint letter calling the Education Department’s actions “an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.”

They also wrote that the department’s accusations are “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how expertise in foreign languages, cultural competencies, and area and international knowledge in general is obtained.”

Rights organisations like Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Coalition Against Censorship also published their own responses criticising the department’s efforts against CMES.


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