Wading into the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium Mess

Note: This originally appeared as a really long thread on Twitter. I had originally colored edited or new text in blue, but have now edited so much that it’s kind of lost all of its meaning and just gave up.

It’s Sunday morning, I have my first cup of coffee, and I’m about to wade into the kerfuffle over the Duke-UNC Middle East Studies consortium.

So let’s get started, shall we?

First off, let me say that I worked for over 15 years for a Title VI program. I left a few years back when writing my dissertation, and there’s been a complete turnover in administration since my day–in any event, this column isn’t about my former place of employment. Nonetheless, let me clarify that what follows here is my opinion alone based on my own observances working with the Title VI grant program writ large.

Note: upon reflection, I have things to say about this opening paragraph. First, after I posted the Twitter thread, a couple of colleagues who still work for NRCs at different institutions contacted me privately to let me know they were either reluctant to speak publicly on the issue, or had been asked not to.

That was when I realized the deeper implication of me starting my own twitter thread with a disclaimer that I no longer work for an NRC and am speaking on my own behalf.

Second, while I know people who work for the Duke-UNC consortium, I am not in a position to evaluate their programming. Nor do I know anything about the Gaza conference that was held which apparently started this whole thing; I have no way to judge whether the criticism it attracted was warranted or valid.

Note: a commenter (scroll all the way down) who was on one of the panels at the Gaza has written an account of the event at her blog.

Background

Title VI, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Act is a federal program administered through the US Department of Education (US/ED) allowing universities to apply for designation as a National Resource Center (NRC) on a four year cycle (always at the same time; the last competition was in 2018; the next should be in 2022).

Despite the emphasis in coverage on the Middle East NRCs, there are NRCs on pretty much the entire world now, including Canada and Western Europe (Title VI used to be exclusively non-Western, although Latin America was included).

Various tweaks have been made along the way, and these are important to understanding what is happening with and to Duke-UNC. Under the Bush administration, a group of neoconservative advocates were able to get language inserted requiring “presentation of multiple perspectives.”

Under the Obama administration, the emphasis placed on STEM education resulted in an absolute priority being added to the competition (meaning, do this or you aren’t eligible) to increase foreign language training among STEM majors.

The same year, a mandate to work with Minority Serving Institutions and/or junior and community colleges was also added.

Title VI doesn’t provide blanket funding. Applicants have to specify what they’re going to do with the money. It cannot be used for faculty salaries, and only up to 50% of administrative salaries, for example. The focus is on developing programming and resources, and training students (a related program that can be applied for either in conjunction with NRC status, or independently of it, is the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) funding which is used exclusively as fellowships for students pursuing advanced language study).

The Obama era additions were rather restrictive, and some institutions chose to close their programs (notably Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies) rather than accept money that was so restricted.

Title VI also requires significant investment from the institutions themselves. At one point, my institution estimated that for every dollar in Title VI funding received, they were spending three from other sources.

US/ED doesn’t seem to know its own regulations

Like any grantor of funds, US/ED absolutely has the right to request clarification to ensure that its funds are being spent appropriately–I am certainly not arguing to the contrary. That said, in my experience, in the past when US/ED has wanted such clarification, they have asked for it in private communication with grant recipients; they don’t publish public letters in the Federal Register

What is being missed in the coverage of the Duke-UNC issue is that the letter sent by Assistant Secretary King displays a startling lack of understanding of the Title VI program’s own regulations.

The media has focused on issues like the way Israel and Islam are portrayed in classes and lectures. Let’s leave those aside for a moment and start with the paragraph that suggests that the consortium has an anti-governmental bias and is discouraging students from working for the federal government.

This is a stunning allegation to be made without any sort of proof.

The letter goes on to complain that, instead of choosing to work for the government, students are going on to graduate education or working for academia.

This is an acceptable outcome according to Title VI’s own regulations.

Title VI is not just a university-to-government pipeline. It is also meant to ensure that there will be qualified instructors for the next generation.

Let’s not even discuss the fact that small programs like the Duke-UNC consortium don’t have career counselors.

It is truly shocking that the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education would look at placement data and–based solely on this data–assume not only that students were choosing not to work for the federal government because they were being coached not to do so, but to then repeat this allegation in an open letter published in the Federal Register.

The letter also bemoans the fact that foreign languages are being taught by lecturers and not tenured faculty. As mentioned above, Title VI funds cannot be used to hire permanent faculty. It can be used (partially) to hire lecturers.

Universities cannot snap their fingers and make tenure track positions appear. Believe me, I and a number of colleagues on the job market right now wish that they could. Duke-UNC is doing the best they can with the resources they have. All universities are having this issue.

The tone of the letter also suggests that languages would be better taught by tenure track faculty. I have worked with extremely talented lecturers who are just as dedicated (if not more) than any tenure track faculty member. This letter is also a slap in the face to them.

Education is not a zero-sum game

Let us move on to the most troubling passage: the one that assumes that Islam is being presented more positively than other religions in the Middle East.

Let me tell you about the data this accusation is being pulled from.

Twice a year during the grant period, NRCs have to submit data on what they’re doing with the grant money. One of these is strictly financial, the other includes narratives and comprehensive lists of all events, lectures, workshops, conferences, etc. that were supported.

These are exhausting. They take hundreds of hours of staff time to compile. And feedback is … nonexistent. In fact, I was told once in private that no one at the Department of Education really ever looked at them.

The amount of text you get to describe a single event is fairly limited, and I can’t speak for Duke-UNC, but I will say I never put in a lot of substantive effort into writing descriptions because I had dozens more events to enter into the system–and because in 15 years of submitting these reports I never got a single question, request for additional information, or feedback from anyone, so there was an existential issue of how much I should really bother being complete and creative.

I can say definitively that there is no place in the system to upload fliers, programs, supporting documentation. If it’s a multi day conference, the names of all the speakers usually don’t fit in the text box.

I bring all of this up because Secretary King makes some interesting assumptions about the event that he refers to based on the limited data he has in front of it. He assumes Islam is being portrayed positively, based on … the title of the event?

He assumes that other religious traditions in the region are not being covered, or are being covered less … actually, let’s start with not being covered. Again, I question the basis for the assumption. Does he have the program in front of him? Copies of the materials given out?

The next bit, however, is the red flag, and this one is key, guys, and I’m sorry to have buried it so far down in the thread.

It’s the assumption that if Islam is being portrayed [too?] positively, then by definition any other religion discussed must be portrayed negatively.

This right here is absolutely key, because it has been at the center of neoconservative complaints about Title VI for the past two decades.

It assumes that education does not teach people to think critically, present nuance, and that students must adopt their professors opinions in order to pass the class.

This isn’t how it works, folks.

There is absolutely no basis for the assumption that if one speaks positively about Islam, then we must be speaking negatively of Christianity or Judaism. Education isn’t a zero-sum game. University classes aren’t about which religion is “good” and which is “bad.”

This is a conservative talking point. I know this because the exact same language popped up with the Texas State Board of Ed, who cheerfully admitted who brought their attention to “this important issue.”

Update: it was pointed out on Twitter that the letter critiques Duke-UNC for offering lectures and events focused on Islam instead of other religions, not about the manner in which they are portrayed in comparison to each other–this critique of my comments is perfectly fair.

The crux of my argument here is less about the specific criticism, but rather that the letter strongly suggests that judgement about the worth and value of programming and courses has already been made based on the scant information given in the annual NRC reports and before seeking additional clarification from Duke-UNC. My reading is reinforced by the inclusion of derisive editorial comments in the letter itself ridiculing courses based on their title, and sarcastically questioning how they could possibly be relevant to the NRC mission.

A much more neutral request for information —  for instance, “We see that funds were used to support this course which, based on the title and description, seems to be somewhat esoteric in regards to the NRC mission. We’d like to see the syllabus and have you explain how the course content helps meet program objectives,” would have been more professional (for a start) and much more assuring that the inquiry into Duke-UNC is an honest attempt at administrative oversight.

How many perspectives are multiple?

More to the point is what the media and others have correctly noted is the “chilling” impact this could have on education, if the Department of Education is going to start policing what universities can and cannot include on their syllabi.

The concerns in the letter raised about “multiple perspectives,” for instance, are based on a single event. The way my university approached this was to ensure that multiple perspectives were employed over the program year, not at each individual event.

There is a single example given in the letter from Secretary King. One. “This doesn’t appear to be a balanced event.” Okay. Did Duke-UNC hold other events that provided an alternate perspective on the issue? We don’t know. That information isn’t provided.

It isn’t feasible, possible, or even desirable to turn every academic talk into a point-counterpoint debate.

Presenting one single lecture as an example of “unbalanced programming” is a cheap card trick.

What’s next?

Now, I’ve gone on far too long about this, but to wrap up.

As I mentioned at the very beginning, there are around 120 NRCs around the US, focusing on all regions of the world. The attention in the media has focused on the Middle East ones, but there are plenty of others.

Should the East Asia centers be tweaking their language curriculum so that students learning Mandarin get instruction on how to discuss trade negotiations? Should classes on Korea be required to teach that Kim Jong Un is “a nice guy”?

Should courses on contemporary politics avoid criticism of Russia because “he’s a good guy. I believe him?”

These may seem like over-the-top examples, but … why? If US/ED gets to determine what material and approaches are and are not acceptable–based entirely on course titles and 250 word descriptions–where does it end?

One of the criticisms lobbed at Title VI is that critics feel it should be upholding American interests. This means that professors might have to change out their curriculum with every new administration—even contradicting what they said four years earlier. (Imagine, if you will, the about-face professors would have to do to incorporate Trump administration priorities after spending eight years teaching those of the Obama administration, and that after eight years of the Bush administration.)

This isn’t how education works. American interests are best served by creating a cadre of experts who understand how the rest of the world works and advising the US on what should be done as a result.

That’s what Title VI is supposed to be for.

Update

UNC has responded to the Department of Education. The letter makes numerous references to documentation the government already has in its possession that would have clarified what was happening. See it here:

8 thoughts on “Wading into the Duke-UNC Middle East Consortium Mess

  1. I don’t think Mr. King’s letter was sarcastic. He was pointing out inconsistencies between the actual program and the funding requirements. If the program were following the funding requirements, no such sarcastic-sounding examples would have been possible.

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    1. Text can be difficult to read for tone.

      That said, your last sentence here reinforces one of my key points. The letter is allegedly asking for more information in order to determine if the program is complying with funding requirements, but one gets the impression this decision has already been made (if this is the case, why not simply say so?)

      UNC’s response points out that at least two of the ‘sarcastic sounding examples’ were not funded by the federal grant, and alleges that this information is contained in the annual report for that program year.

      Again, I have no way of knowing whether this is accurate—as I say from the get go, this could all be on the up-and-up—it’s just a quite unusual departure from the normal way of doing business.

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