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Duke-UNC v. DOE: Riding a wave of mutual antagonism

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Since the trade publication Inside Higher Ed revealed on Sept. 17 that the Department of Education’s Robert King, assistant secretary for postsecondary education, warned the Duke/UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) that most of its activities supported with Title VI funds “are unauthorized” and that it “may not qualify as an eligible national resource center,” journalists and professors have tripped over themselves in their rush to condemn the Department of Education’s (DOE) effrontery. Publications from student newspapers to the New York Times have spun the letter as a threat to academe’s sacrosanct commitment to freedom for professors with approved opinions and pure hearts.   

Yet the bulk of these stories appeared after the DOE informed CMES that it would receive its entire grant for the 2019/20 academic year on Sept. 20 — the same day CMES replied to the charges. Both combatants knew for weeks that no immediate cuts were in store. This revelation first came courtesy of a Sept. 30 article in the Duke Chronicle, a student publication. Last week, DOE confirmed publicly that it will fund the program.

Why would DOE and CMES apparently sit on the information while a war of words raged around them? Surely DOE could have used it to push back against allegations that its letter was a “chillingly inappropriate political intrusion into curricular decisions” (American Association of University Professors), a move “motivated not by any governing statute but rather by the administration’s own ideological standards” (ACLU) that “will undermine the mission of Title VI” (18 academic organizations), or the “worst full-blown assault on academic freedom in the United States since the Joe McCarthy era” (Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer).

Similarly, CMES and its media allies might have crowed that the Trump administration’s threats were effectively countered by liberty-loving academics and journalists who rose to the challenge and faced down the president and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Yet, for over two weeks, neither side sought to undermine the other by releasing this at-hand information.

The simplest explanation for their silence is also the most convincing: both know this is but the opening salvo in a protracted struggle over future funding of CMES under business-as-usual methods, wherein centers are free to engage in ideologically-driven work unrelated to the program’s intent. 

Created as a program of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and later incorporated into the Higher Education Act of 1965, Title VI was founded to produce specialists in fields critical to national security by supporting language and area studies of key world regions. The DOE’s Aug. 29 letter charges CMES with failing to “carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI and other activities, perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.” Oh, the humanity!

Officials at DOE did not respond to a request for comment by my organization, Campus Watch

In their respective views, both DOE and CMES advance their cause by avoiding open conflict until the next stage of this controversy erupts, as would occur should the Consortium’s federal funding be cut. Such a bold move is possible; DOE’s decision to award the full grant almost certainly was not an expression of satisfaction with CMES’s 16-page reply to the department’s complaints. 

Not only is a same-day turnaround on any complex issue an all-but-impossible feat for any bloated federal bureaucracy, in this case it would expose DOE’s threats as hollow. Such impotence would sharply contradict both King’s refreshingly accurate (by past DOE standards) assessment of CMES’s shortcomings and the record of the administration in which he serves, which delights in flouting what used to pass for decorum in Washington. 

Equally Trumpian is a strategy of allowing higher education leaders and sympathetic media to demonstrate their estrangement from the voting public by their frenzied responses to DOE’s demands. Requiring universities to obey laws governing the spending of public funds is uncontroversial to most Americans, who live within the law themselves and expect others to do the same. But informing elite universities that DOE will “hold the Duke-UNC CMES accountable for ensuring all Title VI funded or subsidized activities directly reflect express congressional mandates and purposes,” as King’s letter states, sparks a nationwide protest from privileged academics accustomed to unquestioning obedience from their federal enablers and the hoi polloi who fund them. It also undercuts any thought by the Consortium to sue DOE for withholding funds.

But it doesn’t prevent CMES from reaping the benefits conferred as a target of the Trump administration’s disdain. Victimization is the academic left’s chief currency, the means of establishing a pecking order and granting entitlements. Why announce good news when you’re threatened for refusing to knuckle under to hate-filled deplorables? There is literal currency to be gained from donors convinced of CMES’s and its supporting universities’ roles as defenders of academic freedom, legislative stipulations be damned. Negative media coverage spreads this line nationwide, solidifying (in CMES’s view) academe’s mission as guardian of the liberal world order against the Trump administration’s depredations. 

If both sides’ constituencies in this conflict — middle-America voters for DOE, academe and its elite supporters for CMES — stand to benefit from this first round, the next phase will determine who has the upper hand in shaping the future of Title VI. Having made the bold move of calling a major center to account for misusing its grant, DOE should stay the course by cutting or eliminating funding for CMES next year unless it complies with federal law. DeVos and King also should make clear their commitment to holding other politicized Title VI Middle East studies centers to the letter of the law by reviewing them immediately. Taxpayers are not obliged to indulge academe’s entitlement mentality. 

Winfield Myers is director of academic affairs and director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. Follow on Twitter @CampusWatchMEF.

Tags Betsy DeVos CMES DOE Title VI

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