October 19, 2019

Education Department Says UNC-Duke Middle East Program Doesn’t Meet Federal Funding Guidelines

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Department of Education sent an Aug. 29 letter to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill – Duke University Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) that their program doesn’t adequately meet the requirements for federal funding.

The letter, which became public on the Federal Register on Sept. 17, states that “the Department is concerned that most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized,” pointing the program’s offerings of “Iranian art and film” as an example.

“Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modem Iran’ and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability,” Education Department Assistant Secretary Robert King wrote in the letter. 

He added that CMES can offer such programs, but can only get federal funding if they can “clearly demonstrate that such programs are secondary to more rigorous coursework helping American students to become fluent Farsi speakers and to prepare for work in areas of national need.”

King also wrote that CMES doesn’t provide much material on historic and current discrimination of “religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others.” He added that CMES touts “the positive aspects of Islam” but doesn’t “focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East. This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting [the] legal requirement that National Resource Centers ‘provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries’ in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used.”

Additionally, the CMES faculty mainly features “non-tenure track lecturers” for foreign language courses and tenured faculty member for “culture studies” programs, suggesting “a potentially serious misalignment between Title IV requirements and the Duke-UNC CMES’s orientation and activities,” King asserted.

“Activities focusing on American culture or academic preferences that do not directly promote foreign language learning and advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States are not to be funded under Title VI,” King wrote.

CMES has until Sept. 22 to provide the Department of Education with revisions to their “schedule of activities” for the 2019-20 school year as well as the consortium’s list of academic priorities or risk losing federal funding on Sept. 30.

In April, Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) called on the Department of Education to investigate the CMES’ “Conflict Over Gaza” in conference, alleging the conference had “a biased anti-Israel agenda.” The conference featured rapper Tamer Afer sang lyrics about how he “cannot be anti-Semitic alone” and “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. The CMES and UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz condemned Nafer’s song.

Additionally, an attendee of the conference wrote in The Tower that the conference was far more favorable towards Hamas than to Israel.

StandWithUs and the AMCHA Initiative praised the Department of Education’s letter in statements to Jewish News Syndicate (JNS).

We commend the department for its thorough, serious investigation and for demanding corrective action that requires the school to educate, rather than indoctrinate, students,” StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department Director Yael Lerman said.

AMCHA Initiative Co-Founder and Director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin similarly told JNS that there are too many instances of academics across the country “using taxpayer dollars to host highly politicized outreach programs that attack Israel and even promote BDS, behavior that thwarts the very purpose of their federal funding, and leads to anti-Jewish hostility and harassment on campus. This is exactly what happened at UNC.”

A spokesperson for UNC Chapel Hill said in a statement to the Journal, “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.”