WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 17:  Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to be the next Secretary of Education, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill  January 17, 2017 in Washington, DC. DeVos is known for her advocacy of school choice and education voucher programs and is a long-time leader of the Republican Party in Michigan.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Betsy DeVos' controversial statements (2018)
02:07 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the History Department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Last March, the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies hosted a conference entitled “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” A month later, Representative George Holding, a North Carolina Republican who represents a neighboring district that appears to have been carefully drawn to avoid the Democratic-leaning areas around the universities, sent a letter to the US Department of Education demanding an investigation of alleged use of taxpayer dollars to support anti-Semitism on campus.

David M. Perry

Now, Robert King, the assistant secretary for Postsecondary education at the Department of Education, has issued his own letter to the consortium, which is a collaborative effort between the two universities that emphasizes the interdisciplinary study of “the Middle East as the region extending from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.” King’s letter, which reads like a litany of catastrophic failures by the consortium, details numerous complaints, threatens withholding of federal funds, and condemns what he calls the “considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam.”

This is what a real threat to free speech on a college campus looks like. It looks like the federal government telling a university how and what to teach its students.

The warning letter to Duke and UNC isn’t the first time that a Middle Eastern Studies program has had its federal funding threatened due to allegations of anti-Semitism. In 2014, a coalition of pro-Israel groups lobbied the education department to create formal grievance procedures when programs receiving federal funding under Title VI (more on that in a moment) did not adequately reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of view.”

They didn’t get very far with their complaint back then, but they did succeed in establishing a bureaucratic pathway for censorship of these programs that has found more receptive ears in the department under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The goal in situations like this is never really about diversity. Diversity requires opening the world up to students, helping them see and think critically about experiences beyond their own. Here, the critics of these programs want to shut conversations down.

The core of this issue goes beyond the always-contentious question of how we talk about Israel and Palestine, but the fundamental question of what higher education is for.

The Duke-UNC consortium receives some of its funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (as revised various times over the years), which “authorizes grants to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States by teaching American students the foreign languages and cultural competencies required to develop a pool of experts to meet our national needs.” “National needs” is often interpreted to mean the training of future foreign service officers.

That’s just what interdisciplinary area studies programs like the ones in North Carolina are doing. They link language acquisition to the study of history, literature, politics, religion, art and more. Republicans have long been more or less happy with the presumed utilitarianism of teaching future diplomats the languages they’ll need to communicate, but balk at imparting the cultural aspects that might help students acquire the context for true understanding.

King’s letter accuses the consortium of offering “very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to US national security and economic needs.” That’s just false. A humanities program like this develops students to have the mental flexibility to comprehend the world as it is and be prepared to respond to the crises of tomorrow.

Then there’s the content-policing going on here. The Department of Education chided Duke and UNC for such activities as working with future teachers to build climates of equity in the classroom, exploring the experience of religious minorities in the United States, teaching Iranian cinema, and engendering a supposed lack of balance when it comes to comparing Islam to other religions. The idea of a federal agency demanding oversight of college course content, down to scrutinizing syllabi, should send shivers down the spines of everyone who cares about education or government overreach.

Now the Education Department is demanding that the consortium produce “a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.” But which national security interests? And whose economic stability? These are just the kind of issues that interdisciplinary humanities centers are designed to question.

For years I’ve been arguing that the real threats to free speech emerge when those in power, regardless of their ideology, try to coerce teachers and students. That’s just what’s happening here. In the name of “diversity,” Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education is trying to shut down a program that is doing exactly what we, as a nation, should be looking for. Muslim perspectives are rare and marginalized in American society, to our detriment. Lack of cultural understanding of the Middle East has greatly harmed our nation, as we’ve made mistake after mistake in our foreign policy and military decision-making.

As we teeter on the verge of armed conflict with Iran, we need more programs in Iranian cinema, not fewer, even if – as the Education Department complains – such programs don’t directly lead to more Farsi speakers. Educational outcomes are unpredictable. That’s the beauty of education.

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    That said, here’s one thing that the program’s critics get right. The letter notes that most of the people teaching languages are non-tenure-track appointees. UNC and Duke should fix that right away. Maybe the federal government would like to give them a grant to do so.