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Education Department Probes Middle East Studies Program

September 17, 2019
 
 

The Department of Education accused the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies of inappropriate use of Title VI program funds in a letter scheduled to be published today in the Federal Register.

The letter argues that many of the programs run by the consortium, a joint project of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “have little or no relevance to Title VI,” a federal grant program that funds international studies and foreign language programs at U.S. universities.

“Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern 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,” the letter from Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King states.

The letter asserts that “foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities at Duke-UNC CMES.”

The letter from King also alleges “a lack of balance” in the Duke-UNC consortium’s programming and suggests that Islam is treated favorably compared to religious minority groups in the Middle East, including Christianity and Judaism.

Further, the department accuses the center of “advancing ideological priorities” in its programs -- as one example, King cites a program involving a Muslim American artist who gives workshops on hip-hop and social justice -- and of using its teacher training programs to “advance narrow, particularized views of American social issues” rather than focusing on language development or the geography, geopolitical issues or history of the Middle East.

The letter directs the Duke-UNC program to provide a revised schedule of activities it intends to support with Title VI funds over the coming year -- "including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States" -- in order to remain eligible for future funding.

The Raleigh News and Observer previously reported, in June, that the Department of Education had opened an investigation into the use of Title VI funds at the UNC-Duke center after complaints of anti-Semitic rhetoric at a March conference it hosted about Gaza.

Duke declined comment, referring questions to UNC, where the center is based. A spokeswoman for Chapel Hill said only that the university has received the letter “and will respond directly to the Department of Education.”

Multiple experts on Middle East studies and area programs declined or did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday afternoon.

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