May 05, 2004

Threat to Academic Freedom at Middle East Centers

[UPDATE: Links fixed.]

The Daily Utah Chronicle:

[T]he U.S. House of Representatives passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act, which has since been introduced to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If this legislation passes, it will establish an oversight committee
comprised of seven representatives from U.S. security agencies.

The committee would possess the sovereignty to exercise political and
investigative control in studying, monitoring, apprising and evaluating
the nation's 17 Middle East centers and their various activities to ensure
that they reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of
views on issues of international concern.

Juan Cole has more; Stanley Kurtz, who has been leading the charge against the Middle East Centers, makes his case here.

I'm not at all an expert on this, but on first glance it stinks to high
heaven. The government should not be in the business of establishing
diversity controls for academic centers, period. Particularly when the
call for diverse perspectives come from the likes of Stanley Kurtz, who as
far as I can tell has spent the last couple of years being wrong about
absolutely everything, and is an utter fucking
to boot.

I'd like to see some discussion of this--I found out about it from a
student newspaper lying open in the computer lab. If this isn't a threat
to academic freedom, I'd love to know.

Posted by Matt Weiner at May 5, 2004 05:48 PM

You left the http:// portion out of two links, which causes them not to work. The offending portion is corrected below.

Juan Cole has more; Stanley Kurtz, who has been leading the charge against the Middle East Centers, makes his case here.

Posted by: Matthew at May 7, 2004 01:17 PM


I'd also like to take the time to say that my primary beef here isn't necessarily political. I just have trouble understanding how there's any possible excuse for a government-mandated requirement for U.S. security forces to oversee academic centers. On its face, if that's not a violation of academic freedom, nothing is. I hope I would feel the same way if it were my ideological allies trying to pass this law (and I don't think the people under attack are necessarily my allies, either).

Also, political discussion is OK on this thread, if anyone's reading; I've already breached the temperate-discussion barrier myself. :-)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 7, 2004 02:42 PM

There was some discussion of this issue over at Ektopos in connection with Beshara Doumani's article The End of Academic Freedom? I don't want to be an apologist for Kurtz but I've seen statements that some of these people have made and they certainly were fairly far out there. Unfortunately I'm having trouble locating the article, but Iíll be sure to share it when I do.

That said I suppose that if one is going to take government money you'd have to expect some oversight, and in this particular area I'm not sure where else the government would draw experts. It seems to me that if the government is putting money into these programs under Title VI it isnít just a blank check. I guess itís just not real clear to me how this is an abridgment of academic freedom "yet". In Thought Control for Middle East Studies Joel Beinin says, ďNo first-rank university would accept direct government intrusion into the educational process. Such institutions would likely refuse to accept Title VI funding if it were subject to political oversight.Ē Well ok then donít take the money because I donít know of any kind of government oversight that isnít political. Further it seems that most first-rank universities would have enough money in their endowments that they could foot the bill themselves. Obviously if your have a center with private funding this wouldnít be an issue. The most informative article by far is from Campus Watch Warping Mideast judgments .

Posted by: Matthew at May 7, 2004 11:26 PM

In the spirit of one good turn deserving another, I've supplied a couple of missing links in your post (the last two)--let me know if they're not the ones you meant! (Especially the last one; the best link I could find was actually quite hostile to Campus Watch.)

I don't wish to be an apologist for the Middle East Centers myself, but on the abstract academic freedom point Joel Beinin seems completely right to me. The question isn't just governmental--universities shouldn't accept funding from anyone who wants control/oversight over the ideological makeup of the people who receive that funding. (I've interviewed for a job that was sponsored by the Bradley Foundation, who probably wouldn't like my political views much!)

As far as the question of whether government oversight is necessarily political, it doesn't seem to me that it has to be. From Heydemann's "Warping Mideast Judgments" article, it seems to me as though the legitimate issue might be whether Title VI is meant to fund language training and is funding policy studies instead. But if that were the concern, the people to review it would probably be from the Department of Education. And since Heydemann claims the DoE does review centers' proposals every three, that seems like the sort of non-political oversight that should be going on. This doesn't seem to me any more political than the fact that the National Institutes of Health reviews grants for scientific proposals.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 9, 2004 08:02 PM

Follow-up: here Martin Kramer rebuts Heydemann, claiming that Title VI has lost its focus on language studies, isn't leading to adequate increases in enrollments for studying Arabic, and isn't producing enough graduates who go into government service.

Those all seem like potentially legitimate complaints that a funding organization might make. But Kramer's proposed solution (HR 3077) is completely out of whack with the complaints. If you wanted to increase focus on language studies, you'd create an audit board composed of language professionals; and you wouldn't push your complaint by talking about how left-wing Middle East Studies is. Unfortunately, by pushing his complaint politically, Kramer has completely undercut the possible substantive critique.

(And the idea that the advisory board should come from a security forces is practically a parody of the worst-case scenario for academic freedom.)

A commentator on Kramer's site (not Kramer, and he's not responsible for these comments) raises a quite disturbing perspective:

It is not enough to encourage language teaching. Language teaching can be a dangerous initiation into the Muslim Arab worldview, if students know little.... Language teachers must be monitored. There are a large number of native speakers of Arabic--Copts from Egypt, Maronites from Lebanon, and of course Arabic-speaking Jews.

That, I think, is the reductio of this monitoring--the demand that funded instructors be not only ideologically pure but religiously/ethnically pure. As I said, Kramer isn't responsible for these comments, but it would be far too easy for his advisory board to degenerate into this sort of racial profiling.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 10, 2004 11:24 AM