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House Democrats have launched an inquiry into whether the Department of Education singled out a federally funded program for Middle East studies by “creating novel requirements targeted at penalizing the Duke-UNC Consortium.”

The Education Department wrote to the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies in September threatening future funding through the Title VI program. The department raised a number of concerns about the program, including about what the department described as a “lack of balance” in that it allegedly emphasized “positive aspects of Islam” while failing to emphasize positive aspects of other religions of the region.

A Nov. 1 letter from U.S. representative Andy Levin, the vice chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and U.S. representative Susan A. Davis, the chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee, alleges that the department’s review of the Duke-UNC program “appears to add requirements beyond those in the statute, regulations, or published guidance" for the federal Title VI program, which funds foreign language and area studies programs at colleges and universities. Levin and Davis write for example that “though the statute does not reference job placement rates, the Department's analysis cherry-picks certain Duke-UNC Consortium rates to demonstrate a lack of compliance with a newly-invented Department standard for government job placements.”

Levin and Davis also write that the requirement of “balance” is novel. “The Title VI statute only requires curricula to offer ‘diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate,’ and not, as the Department writes in its response letter to the Middle East Studies Association ‘balanced perspectives,’” they write.

“We do not believe the Department's role is to arbitrate which classes, programs, or educational activities are positive or negative, or which perspectives are sufficiently diverse or ‘balanced.’ Educators, not the Department, have the necessary expertise to decide which curricular areas merit focus. The Department's action here sends a clear and dangerous signal that it will condition access to federal funds on specific curriculum content," Levin and Davis argue.

Levin and Davis have requested that the department answer a series of questions related to its review of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said the department has received the letter from Levin and Davis and is reviewing it.

"We reviewed the Consortium's use of grant funds because we are concerned that they have not followed congressional requirements for the program -- that students must learn a foreign language and hear diverse regional perspectives," the spokeswoman said. "Our inquiry has nothing to do with their program being 'too positive on Islam.' The facts matter here. Pro-Islamic programming isn't the concern -- it's the lack of diversity and foreign language learning."