Administrators from the Five College Consortium issued a letter on Sept. 25 denouncing the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to investigate the Duke-University of North Carolina (UNC) Middle East Studies consortium for allegedly misusing federal funds.
The controversy began on Sept. 17, when Department of Education General Counsel Reed Rubenstein threatened to pull federal funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies unless it revised its programs. Rubenstein alleged that the Duke-UNC Middle East studies program promoted the “ideological prioities” of Islam and did not highlight the “positive” aspects of Judeo-Christianty. The U.S. department further argued that the program is in violation of Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which allows for the provision of federal funding to programs that teach foreign languages, area studies or international studies, meaning it had the right to withdraw its monetary support of $235,000.
The joint letter from the colleges criticized the Department of Education for setting a dangerous precedent and infringing on the academic freedom of the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies Consortium. Published by Smith College, it was signed by President Biddy Martin and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein on behalf of Amherst College.
The letter also proclaimed that the Department of Education has deviated from its most basic tenets, stating that “restricting freedom of inquiry contravenes the letter and spirit of the U.S. Department of Education’s own code.” The letter went on to urge the department to uphold the “principles of academic freedom on which this country has long depended for its rich and important history of scholarly excellence and societal advances.”
In an Oct. 7 statement, Martin confirmed that Amherst has not received a response to the letter. She added that “the goal [of the letter] was to speak clearly about the importance of academic freedom.”
The Department of Education’s allegations have provoked numerous responses from institutions of higher education. Professor of Anthropology Christopher Dole noted that the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) organized a joint letter from more than a dozen U.S. academic institutions objecting to the letter from the Department of Education. MESA has over 50 member institutions, including the Duke-UNC consortium, University of Southern California, University of Arkansas, Dartmouth College, Brandeis University and American University of Kuwait.
“That MESA could so quickly organize this many organizations — several of which are quite conservative — speaks toward that audaciousness of the Department of Education’s attack on the Duke-UNC Consortium,” Dole stated.
A lack of federal funding is not the main concern for people in higher education. The Duke Chronicle reported that withdrawing $235,000 worth of funding will have little influence on Duke and UNC’s ability to fund their Middle Eastern programs. The UNC Investment Fund also said that a majority of the schools’ funding does not come from a governmental source.
Rather, the principle of the Department of Education’s decision prompted leaders from the five colleges to submit their letter. Publishing the letter was essential, said Epstein, who added that the government has no right to intervene in any particular higher education programs.
“Essentially, universities and colleges need to maintain their autonomy,” Epstein said. “We know the government — even if it’s providing funding — should not be deciding on the content of college programs. All the government needs to know is that the broad framework which they set out is is being met. It is the same thing with donors. We don’t allow them to decide the content that their funding is supporting.”
For Epstein, the act of funding a college or university suggests that the government trusts the academic institution with how that money is used. She noted that the government should not be withdrawing funding simply because it doesn’t like the “alleged content that is being taught.”
The letter was well received by the president of the Muslim Students Association, Sabir Meah ’21. Though the five colleges are not directly related to the case, their administrators chose to publicly denounce the situation, Meah noted. He added that he appreciates their focus on academic freedom.
“The five colleges are academic institutions, they should be involved with any situations that threaten academic freedom,” Meah said. “I like how they connected the necessity of free speech and education to the development of democratic society … and that colleges reserve the right to dictate their own educational curriculum.”
Meah, however, said he was unsettled by the fact that the letter did not comment on any other actions taken by the Trump administration.
“It’s not just one separate isolated incident that we should be worried about, but just the general attitude of the administration in matter particularly pertaining to academic freedom and freedom of speech just to be honest,” Meah said.
Basma Azzamok ’22 echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the importance for Duke and UNC to realize that other academic institutions support them. Azzamok noted that the letter was diplomatic but conveyed the seriousness of the situation.
“I think the letter was very well written … The government might not like what’s being taught in certain academic curriculums but they shouldn’t feel that they have the authority to interfere,” Azzamok said.
Azzamok added that the letter should have addressed Islam by name.
“[It’s] problematic, to put it mildly,” Azzamok said. “You can’t not address it by name. If it were a different program like a Judeo program or an Israeli program, there would not be this much controversy.”
She also pointed out that the letter was similar to the one sent by Martin regarding former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s visit last semester.
“The letter Biddy sent never directly addressed ACR [Amherst College Republicans] or Jeff Sessions,” she said. “It was very vague, like it could be applied to any problematic speaker that comes to campus. I think in some situations, it can be good to be vague and universal like in the Jeff Sessions thing.”
Although it made more sense to remain vague and diplomatic then, she said specificity would have more impact in the current situation.
Rubenstein has not responded to the joint letter. Administrators have encouraged students to keep an eye on the Chronicle of Higher Education which has been covering developments in the case.