Education Dept. cites disproportionate focus on 'positive aspects of Islam' in reviewing UNC-Duke grant funding

The Trump administration is pressuring the University of North Carolina and Duke University to revise their joint Middle East studies program or risk federal funding.

The Education Department wrote in an Aug. 29 letter to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies that the program disproportionately portrays "the positive aspects of Islam." The agency requested they amend the program by Sept. 22 or lose a grant they've been receiving for almost a decade, The Associated Press reported.

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The National Resource Center provides grants to programs that support foreign language learning.

The Education Department said in its letter that foreign language and national security have "taken a back seat to other priorities" that have "little or no relevance" to the objectives of the grant.

The Education Department wrote that the program places "a considerable emphasis" 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.”

The program has until Sept. 22 to send a "revised schedule of activities" and describe how each relates to foreign language and national security, the department said in its letter.

The Education Department on Thursday said the review is focusing on compliance.

"It is patently false that the Department is reviewing the program as being too positive on Islam," a department spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill. "We're reviewing UNC-Duke's use of grant funds because we are concerned that they have not followed congressional requirements for the program — that students must learn a foreign language and hear diverse regional perspectives."

"Our inquiry has nothing to do with their program having an Islamic bias," the spokesperson added. "Pro-Islamic programming isn't the concern — it's the lack of diversity and foreign language learning."

A spokesperson said in a statement that "the Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program."

"In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about its programs," the spokesperson said.

Duke declined to comment.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDeVos forgives 1,500 student loans amid federal lawsuit Warren campaign launches 'a calculator for the billionaires' after Gates criticism Education Department finalizes new regulations to relax college-accreditation requirements MORE's investigation into the consortium began after Rep. George HoldingGeorge Edward Bell HoldingNorth Carolina poised to pass new congressional maps North Carolina ruling could cost GOP House seats House committee advances measure taxing nicotine in vaping products MORE (R-N.C.) sent her a letter condemning the program for holding a conference with "severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric."

DeVos said she was "troubled" by the letter and would look into the consortium, The Associated Press reported.

Holding told the AP that the Education Department has a right to ensure funding is being used properly.

“This has fallen through the cracks, and this could be going on at other educational institutions,” he said. “If the department’s providing the money and giving guidance on how the money is to be used, I think they can be as in the weeds as they need to be.”

The consortium enrolls 960 students in Middle East language courses out of 6,791 students in the overall Middle East studies program, the letter said.

Updated at 4:31 p.m.