Among the Intellectualoids

He Said, She Said

One reporter's quest to get to the bottom of a federally subsidized Middle East studies program. Do academics outside the mold of Edward Said need apply?

By 1.9.09

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Title VI, a recent addition to the original Higher Education Act of 1965, is part of a post-9/11 educational trend aimed at exposing Americans to the languages and cultures of the Middle East. The program gives a little over $100 million a year to the Department of Education (DE) for language and foreign policy study, but critics fear it may sometimes run counter to our goals in the war on terror.

Conservative journalists, most notably National Review's Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer, have accused the federal government of sending Title VI funds to biased professors and partisan programs -- ones that exclusively taught Middle East history with Arabs portrayed as Little Red Riding Hood and America as the Big Bad Wolf. This school of thought, spurred by Edward Said's Orientalism, largely ignores the negative aspects of the politics and cultures of the Middle East and discounts much of the scholarship critical of the region produced in the West.

Predictably, left-wing professors have dismissed these accusations as a witch hunt by right-wing crazies. Nezar AlSayyad, chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley, said the original reforms were "intervention in what faculty members do and it is an attempt to silence those who criticize the government."

Juan Cole, a regular contributor to Salon and professor of the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan, said on his blog that their efforts were intended to "warp academic study and ensure that independent researchers are not allowed to be heard," and that the DE "already does oversight of the area studies centers, and gives or withholds money according to whether they meet government goals."

After the initial call for reform, a congressional hearing was held, and a bill was passed in August of last year to require Title VI award recipients to "reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views." Kurtz was encouraged but said "A lot will depend on how it is enacted and enforced." Miriam A. Kazanjian, of the Coalition for International Education, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I don't know anyone who is against diverse perspectives; it's like motherhood and apple pie."

How diverse the perspectives will really be is up to government bureaucrats. The public can have input on these bureaucrats' interpretation of the law via a "comments" section on the Federal Register. But whether this is in fact a meaningful reform -- and, more importantly, how the money gets in the hands of the universities -- remains unclear.

Kurtz argued in National Review that the money has been going into partisan hands because it was handled by DE committees whose membership was monopolized by left-wing academics: "Instead of restricting the membership of these committees to scholars, policy makers and policy experts from think tanks need to be empowered to sit on such panels." Cole countered that education officials already oversaw the process and that "government objectives" were being met. 

Yet following the money is extremely difficult. The $100 million transferred from the U.S. Treasury to the DE for Title VI programs funds ten area and language study programs in the U.S. and abroad, typically administered by individual universities as improvements or additions to existing foreign studies programs. The department couldn't say conclusively how much money goes to Middle Eastern and Asian studies, but their website features a chart that shows what money went to which university for the largest of the 10 programs.

The chart does a good job of detailing individual grants, but does not say how much money is dedicated to a specific region. Some information can be gleaned by looking at the individual grants, or at least, what a group of individuals receive. Between the main program and the 9 others, approximately $7 million went this past year to a variety of purposes at 23 African and Middle East studies centers across the U.S.

Another program gave $245,724 to the University of Michigan to further develop advanced Arabic language studies. The university curricula paid for by these grants was not publicized on the DE website, is not available through the departments' press office, and is not available on the individual universities programs' websites. A case-by-case examination of individual universities curricula would need to be undertaken in order to judge the partisanship of the programs.

But Title VI recipients are awarded their payments only after being approved by a review board, so the DE should be aware of the curricula it is funding before it ever gives the money out. According to the department's press office, potential grantees apply for funding through an online ED application, consisting of a 40-page grant essay, among other requirements. These applications are evaluated by readers, who are selected by the ED's Office of Postsecondary Education Field Reader System (OPEFRS).

So how does one qualify as a reader? DE press officers could not tell me exactly, though a government website asks potential readers for a great deal of information and says they must hold bachelor's degrees. I was also assured that the readers who oversaw the administration of the last round of Middle East programs did include one public official, one private industry representative, and four academics representing "of course a full array of academic institutions."

Education officials say reader applications were overseen by the Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education. Maybe he could tell me whether that "full array" of academic viewpoints included any from a non-Said perspective.

Unfortunately, the DE has gone through at least four separate Deputy Assistant Secretaries for the Office of Postsecondary Education in the past two years. Press release records indicate that Sally Stroup was confirmed for the position on April 14, 2006. After her resignation, James Manning became the Acting Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education on from May 4, 2006 until August 6, 2007, when Diane Auer Jones was the confirmed Assistant Secretary. But then Jones resigned on August 1. 2008, at which point Cheryl Oldham became the latest Acting Assistant Secretary. She was on maternity leave and not available for comment.

When it comes to Title VI, there are a lot more questions than answers.

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