February 18, 2020

Education Dept. Investigating UNC-Duke Conference

Photo from Good Free Photos.

Department of Education (ED) Secretary Betsy DeVos told Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) in a Tuesday letter that the ED will be investigating University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Duke University’s joint Middle East conference from March 22-24.

The conference, titled “Conflict Over Gaza,” featured the rapper Tamer Nafer telling an audience that he “cannot be anti-Semitic alone” and to think of Mel Gibson before singing, “I fell in love with a Jew… her skin is white and my skin is brown, she was going up and I was going down.” Holding sent a request on April 15 to the ED asking that they investigate federal grant money being used to put on the event. He wrote that the event had “a biased anti-Israeli agenda.”

DeVos wrote in her response to Holding that the conference “troubled” her.

“In order for the Department to learn more about this matter, I have directed the Office of Postsecondary Education to examine the use of funds under this program to determine if the [UNC-Duke University Middle East Studies] Consortium violated the terms and conditions of its grant,” DeVos wrote. She also noted that grant money needs to go toward events featuring “a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.”

Holding said in a statement to The News and Observer “that taxpayer dollars should never be used to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse.”

UNC told The News and Observer that they are cooperating with the ED’s investigation and that less than $200 from a $235,000 grant went toward the conference, although they initially had $5,000 earmarked for the conference.

On April 12, UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement that he was “heartbroken and deeply offended” over Nafer’s song. Duke University President Vincent E. Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth said in an April 11 statement, “Anti-Semitism is one of the great scourges of modern life. Its resurgence, as demonstrated by the worldwide increase in hate crimes and incidents, is deeply troubling and should be of great concern to any civil society.”

The Consortium called Nafer’s song “inexcusable” in an April 18 statement and apologized “for the hurt his comments have caused and we are saddened that this scholarly event was marred by association with anti-Semitism. We as a Consortium join the leaders of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University in reaffirming our commitment to educational opportunities free of all forms of hate.”