Three months after announcing that it would investigate the use of federal funds in an academic conference on Gaza at the University of North Carolina (UNC), the Department of Education has published a letter threatening to withdraw funding from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, which sponsored the event.
The letter, which makes no reference to the Gaza conference, criticizes the consortium for, among other things, decisions by its graduates to “pursue academic careers rather than in government or business.” Sent a week after the start of the fall semester, the letter threatens to cut off funding to Middle East Studies unless Duke-UNC provides a “revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States” by September 22. In a seemingly unprecedented move, the letter was not only sent to the university but also published in the Federal Register.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that the department would be investigating the consortium in response to complaints by Israel advocates such as Rep. George Holding (R-NC) about a March 2019 conference called “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” Claiming that the conference “misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza,” Holding complained that many of the Gaza experts who spoke at the conference have engaged in boycotts of Israel over its treatment of Palestinians.
The Department of Education letter makes no reference to the conference, likely due to the fact that less than $200 of the conference budget came from the federal government’s $235,000-per-year grant to the consortium.
While the department’s micromanagement of the Duke-UNC program in response to the demands of Israel advocates is unprecedented, this attack is a continuation of nearly two decades of right-wing targeting of area studies programs, and Middle East studies programs in particular.
This strategy was employed in a campaign spearheaded in 2014 by Kenneth Marcus, who now serves as assistant secretary for civil rights at the department. Under Marcus, the Brandeis Center and a coalition of other right-wing pro-Israel groups launched a campaign to police scholarly work and teaching in Middle East studies departments across the country. The principal tactic of the campaign was to declare that programs teaching students about the complexities of the Middle East were intrinsically biased against Israel. The groups demanded that Congress and the Department of Education either defund Middle East studies programs or engage in intrusive oversight to ensure that viewpoints sufficiently sympathetic to Israeli government policies would predominate in academic departments.
After warnings from civil rights groups, including Palestine Legal, that such politicized oversight would infringe on academic freedom, the Obama Department of Education expressed confidence that the programs it funds reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and that the department would not accede to the demands of right-wing pro-Israel groups that they “score” programs on their compliance with the department’s conception of diverse perspectives. The UNC letter demonstrates a marked shift under the Trump administration.