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The U.S. Department of Education recently ordered two prominent American universities -- Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- to realign their federally funded Middle East studies programming to focus more clearly on needs for national security and expertise. The department’s letter criticized the programs for a lack of focus on the region’s religious minorities. It also said that administrators gave insufficient attention to contemporary geopolitical challenges in favor of cultural programs -- like a concert series and research papers on early modern Ottoman intellectual history and the Islamic mystical tradition -- describing the latter as having unclear relevance to students’ preparation for work in areas of national need.

The Education Department is overlooking two key points: first, specialized cultural, historical and contextual knowledge is vital to national security, and, second, university and disciplinary structures work against the creation of such knowledge.

The Education Department administers federal funds supporting Middle East studies as part of its jurisdiction under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, which for nearly 60 years has funded university-based training in foreign languages and knowledge about parts of the world deemed vital to U.S. national security interests. The basic premise of the program is that the national interest requires having a pipeline of experts who are linguistically competent and sufficiently informed to make reasonable decisions on national security.

We know these programs well from a decade of collaboration with the Social Science Research Council on a Title VI-funded evaluation of how universities produce knowledge about the Middle East and the larger Islamic world. In the wake of Sept. 11, many policy makers in Washington were concerned about how little specialized social science expertise was available to support informed decision making. Our team was charged with explaining why the nation had so little talent in this domain despite its pivotal importance in world affairs. In over 100 interviews at a dozen of the nation’s most prestigious universities, we spoke with scores of senior faculty and university administrators about how international inquiry generally, and Middle East studies in particular, are regarded in their disciplines.

We found that scholars in Middle East studies view the development of deep contextual knowledge as key to specialized expertise on regions. That includes learning the history and cultural practices of regions, not just the political tactics of fringe groups or undemocratic regimes. Faculty members have to work hard to counteract the growing tendency among undergraduate students to study abroad only on short-term, tourist-like programs. In 2016-17, for example, only 2.3 percent of students studying abroad did so for a full academic or calendar year, while well over half studied abroad for eight weeks or less. Middle East studies centers develop a rich repertoire of cultural events, music and food festivals, and specialized conferences to help ensure that even students who do not spend time in the region are still exposed to some of the cultural practices and knowledge vital to understanding any international context.

At the same time, we found that university and disciplinary structures discourage graduate students and faculty members from developing specialized international expertise. Faculty consistently told us that regional inquiry came with high risk and diminished status for academic careers. Language acquisition took time and was little rewarded, especially in the social sciences, where statistical and computational analyses of large data sets are regarded as more important than actually speaking with people in their native tongues. Those we spoke with told us that faculty hiring committees usually favored researchers studying “knowable,” “American” topics that meshed well with the inherited priorities of nationally parochial academic disciplines. Senior scholars admitted that they consistently discouraged students from pursuing projects in distant parts of the world with complicated languages (costly to learn) and spotty administrative records (little data to crunch). “You can’t make a career being a Syria specialist,” one professor told us -- himself a director of a Middle East study center.

It is thus little wonder that Americans know so little about Islam and the Middle East, and that hyperbole and fearmongering largely shape the public discourse on this part of the world. Higher education in the United States has consistently failed to prepare and encourage people to make investments in serious, critical, nuanced understanding of the spectacularly important place of Islam in global history and current affairs. Instead, what Duke sociologist Christopher A. Bail calls “the space of opinion” gets filled by the loud, the sensational and the shrill.

While the study of the modern Muslim world remains modest and even peripheral on American campuses, the study of Israel and the Jewish diaspora is highly visible and generously funded. Generations of philanthropy, part of a broad commitment from American Jews to encourage the sustained and vital development of Jewish identity, support an impressive web of undergraduate and doctoral programs, journals, conferences, fellowships, and study-abroad opportunities for those who seek to begin an inquiry into the religion, culture and politics in the Middle East from a Judaic standpoint.

Thus, the claim in the Education Department’s August letter that the Duke-UNC programs “lack balance” by focusing on Arab and Muslim perspectives is to completely elide the big picture, in which the odds are heavily stacked against any reasonably equitable scholarly conversation about the fate and future of the Middle East on university campuses in the United States.

The founding intent of Title VI was to provide the nation with language and knowledge of other peoples as a “national resource” to serve informed foreign policy and national security. At the time of its creation during the height of the Cold War, leaders in Washington and academe worked together to create a formidable machinery for producing wisdom and personnel to inform global conflicts with the Soviet Union and global Communism. History proved the value of that investment. But no comparable project of national academic capacity building has been accomplished to inform subsequent global struggles. Instead we have high-level squabbles over the disposition of $235,000 -- the size of the annual Title VI grant received by the Duke-UNC consortium.

It might be easy to cite the Education Department’s letter as merely today’s instance of Trump-administration grandstanding. This would be a mistake. This specific critique of one university consortium’s Middle East studies programming is part of steadily growing government skepticism about the value of academic knowledge of the rest of the world. We note other erosions of government support for rich, contextual world regional study, such as the elimination of Title VIII State Department funds for the study of language training and research on Russia and Eastern Europe in 2013 -- a move that seems notably shortsighted in light of today’s geopolitical climate.

Not long ago, the federal government and universities were both essential partners in the project of national security and informed global leadership. Today the relationship is defined by reciprocal suspicion, incomprehension and antagonism. It is not clear that global influence can be sustained under such conditions.

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