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Title VI and campus bias

As Congress considers measures to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), members should know that academic integrity on U.S. college campuses is under assault, and so is our national security – from the same source.

At a 2009 public symposium, “Gaza and Human Rights,” held by the Center for Near East Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, the largely non-student audience chanted these epithets: “Zionism is racism.” “Zionism is Nazism,” and “f— Israel.” The event featured a panel of four notoriously extreme critics of Israel and was condemned by several UCLA faculty members as a “one-sided witch hunt of Israel” from a biased group.

{mosads}Basic academic integrity should have prevented this kind of flagrant bias at a university-sponsored event. But there’s a law that curbs such abuses as well: Title VI of the HEA, which was created to strengthen U.S. security by training security specialists and educating the public. The Center for Near East Studies at UCLA is one of 129 international studies and foreign language centers, many of these being Middle East studies programs, at American universities that receive federal funding under Title VI. 

During the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, Congress attempted to stymie bias in programs funded by Title VI: The law’s language was changed to guarantee that federal grants only be awarded to academic programs that “reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs… .”

The change didn’t take. Title VI funds – taxpayer dollars – are still being used to support biased and academically worthless programming on college campuses. And the Department of Education is failing to hold these programs accountable for their violations.

Congress is poised to again reauthorize the Higher Education Act. But this time around, Title VI doesn’t need to be tweaked – it needs to be overhauled. 

Title VI funding was intended for programs that educate the public on international affairs and training experts for national security purposes and other government service. Today, a significant number of Title VI programs fail to serve this educational mission.

Aside from their intellectual vapidity, many of these programs poison the atmosphere on campus. In particular, Middle East studies centers funded by Title VI often make a fair-minded discussion of U.S. foreign policy impossible. Those students and faculty with views not in vogue in these departments find themselves ostracized and threatened. The goal of free and open academic inquiry is impossible in such an environment.

The example of UCLA is instructive: according to a new report from the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization focused on the problem of anti-Semitism on college campuses, any time UCLA’s center sponsored or co-sponsored an event mentioning Israel from Fall 2010 to Spring 2013, 93% of the time the mention was negative and critical – as if Israel is a blight on the planet.

Fair-minded criticism of Israel is one thing, but if a scholar is going to focus on Israel in such a one-sided way, that scholar is in fact committing professional malpractice. You cannot understand Israel through such a lens. Which may have been the point of UCLA’s center.

Similarly, in 2011 at the University of California at Berkeley, University of London Development Studies and International Relations Professor Gilbert Achcar spoke at an event titled, “The Arabs and the Holocaust,” hosted by Berkeley’s Center for Middle East Studies. Achcar began his lecture by stating, “Don’t expect me to take a pro-Israel view. I’m an Arab.” The issue, of course, wasn’t whether the professor would take a pro- or anti- position on anything, just that he would use his analytical and academic skills. He didn’t. In his presentation, he downplayed the atrocities of the Holocaust, informing his audience that “Holocaust denial is a form of protest.” So much for academic truth and integrity.

These troubling failures are not limited to within a university’s gates: Many programs funded by Title VI conduct “public outreach” campaigns to present their “scholarship” to K-12 teachers and the general public.

How do we bring real reform to Title VI?

One idea would be to simply defund it. After all, it is hard to believe that the academics currently abusing the federal program will suddenly change their ways. Besides, it’s not like the U.S. government – already running deficits of  $500 billion – couldn’t use the funding elsewhere. 

But de-funding is not the only option. If Title VI funding is to be salvaged, some measures can be taken. They include:

Properly evaluate university promises to ensure diverse perspectives.  Currently, universities are making lots of promises to the government together with their grant applications.  Bureaucrats read these responses but do not evaluate them, nor do they score them when assessing the strength of the applications.  As a starting point, the Education Department should carefully score these certifications and check to see whether universities are doing as they promise.

Establish a formal grievance procedure independent of the campuses. Students who are unable to voice their opinions for fear of retaliation, or who witness threatening behavior condoned on campus should have a means of filing a complaint with those able to conduct an investigation and issue findings (and penalties). The Department of Education already has the necessary resources in place to do this work, which could be modeled on the system used to enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

These simple steps – creating responsible oversight for these programs as well as a formal procedure to investigate and punish wrongdoing– could rescue Title VI international studies programs. While academics would be free to pursue scholarship, taxpayers would be assured that they are getting what their hard-earned dollars are supposed to achieve.

Marcus is the president and general counsel of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.


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