for a govt official to condition govt funds on endorsement of govt policy is flatly illegal

Dept of Ed Orders 2 Universities to Recast Tone on Israel
Erica Green, NYT, Sep 20 2019

FASCHINGSTEIN — The Education Department has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake the Middle East studies program run jointly by the two schools after concluding that it was offering students a biased curriculum that, among other complaints, did not present enough “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity in the region. In a rare instance of federal intervention in college course content, the department asserted that the universities’ Middle East program violated the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies and foreign language programs. The inquiry was part of a far-reaching investigation into the program by the department, which under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has become increasingly aggressive in going after perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education. That focus appears to reflect the views of an agency leadership that includes a civil rights chief, Kenneth Marcus, who has made a career of pro-Israel advocacy and has waged a yearslong campaign to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs that he has criticized as rife with anti-Israel bias. In this case, the department homed in on what officials saw as a program that focused on the region’s Muslim population at the expense of its religious minorities. the department said:

In the North Carolina program’s outreach to elementary and secondary school students, there was a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East. There was no focus on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, Druze and others.

With its actions, the department entered the debate over Israel and Palestinians that has roiled campuses around the country. Miriam Elman, an associate professor at Syracuse University and executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes the BDS movement, said:

This should be a wake-up call. What they’re saying is, ‘If you want to be biased and show an unbalanced view of the Middle East, you can do that, but you’re not going to get federal and taxpayer money.’ To get Title VI, you really have to strive for viewpoint diversity. This is what our students want. They don’t want to be indoctrinated. They want both sides. It’s possible to do that and still make people uncomfortable.

Palestinian rights groups accused the Education Department of intimidation and infringing on academic freedom. Zoha Khalili, a staff lawyer at Palestine Legal, one such group, said:

They really want to send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death. It sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel.

In a letter to university officials published this week in the Federal Register, Asst Sec for Post-Secondary Education Robert King wrote:

Programs run by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies appeared to be misaligned with the federal grant they had received. Title VI of the Higher Education Act awards funding to colleges establishing, strengthening and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs. The Education Dept believes the ME studies consortium has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI and other activities plainly unqualified for taxpayer support. … It seems clear foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of Pindostan have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities.

King wrote that the department believed other offerings, such as a conference focused on “love and desire in modern Iran” and another focused on Middle East film criticism, “have little or no relevance to Title VI.” The department wrote the consortium’s programming also “appears to lack balance.” The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language.” The administration ordered the consortium to submit a revised schedule of events it planned to support and a full list of the courses it offers and the professors working in its Middle East studies program. The department also directed the consortium to demonstrate that it had “effective institutional controls” to stay compliant with the administration’s interpretation of the Higher Education Act. The universities were given until Sep 22, only days before the department is scheduled to approve funding Sep 30. A spokesman for Duke declined to comment, referring questions to the University of North Carolina. A spox for UNC acknowledged receipt of the letter. the university said in a statement:

The consortium deeply values its partnership with the Dept of Ed 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.

To advocacy groups enmeshed in academic battles over Israel, the new investigation was not surprising. Last year, the department reopened a case into anti-Jewish bias at Rutgers University that the Obama administration had closed with no finding of wrongdoing. In reconsidering the case, Marcus said the Dept of Ed would be using a State Dept definition of anti-Semitism that, among other things, labels “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” anti-Jewish bigotry, suggesting that it had been adopted by his office. The Dept of Ed has not adopted that definition. In June, DeVos said she had ordered an investigation into whether the Duke-UNC consortium had misused any of the $235k it received in Title VI grants, including to sponsor an event in March called “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities.” Thug Rep George Holding had requested that DeVos investigate whether federal funding was used to host the conference, which constituents had said was rife with “radical anti-Israel bias.” Holding said the conference featured active members of the BDS movement and featured panelists who “distorted facts and misrepresented the complex situation in Gaza.” He said a video shown at the conference featured a performer who sang a “brazenly anti-Semitic song.”

But some groups came to the defense of the Middle East studies consortium. Tallie Ben Daniel, research and education manager at Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal group that advocates Palestinian rights, said the investigation was the latest attempt by the Trump administration “to enforce a neoconservative agenda onto spaces of academic inquiry and exploration.” She called the consortium’s curriculum“ rich and diverse.” To critics like Daniel, the targeting of the UNC-Duke program appeared to be a continuation of efforts that predated the Trump administration. A group founded by Marcus, the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has pressed Dept of Ed and Congress for years to crack down on ME studies programs that the center claimed promoted an anti-Israel bias. Before joining the Dept of Ed, Marcus had aggressively lobbied for the Higher Education Act to crack down on ME studies programs and criticized both the Dept of Ed and Congress for failing to hold institutions accountable for violating the law’s “diverse perspectives” requirement. In 2014, he wrote an opinion article that assailed the Title VI program for “being used to support biased and academically worthless programming on college campuses,” leaving students and faculty with opposing views “ostracized and threatened.” Marcus wrote:

Aside from their intellectual vapidity, many of these programs poison the atmosphere on campus.

He called on the Dept of Ed to establish a complaint process that would prompt extensive reviews of entire programs like the one being undertaken into UNC and Duke.

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