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FIRE statement on Department of Education letter to Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies

The Department of Education’s review of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ use of Title VI poses a threat to institutional academic freedom. 

Per federal law, the Department of Education’s “National Resource Center” grant to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (Duke-UNC CMES) must be dedicated to certain academic purposes. The Department argues that Duke-UNC CMES misallocated its grant award in a variety of ways. 

FIRE does not possess complete information about the activities funded or the terms of the award, so we cannot readily assess the merit of every allegation. However, some allegations rely on academic and ideological judgments that threaten what Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter deemed “‘the four essential freedoms’ of a university—to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” 

For example, the Department takes issue with what it perceives to be a lack of “balance” in Duke-UNC CMES programming. While “there is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding [of] the positive aspects of Islam,” the Department argues, “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.” The Department states that “[t]his lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting [the] legal requirement that National Resource Center ‘provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries’ in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used.” (Emphasis in original.)

Some of the regulatory requirements the Department administers are reasonably straightforward and demonstrable, such as the maintenance of “important library collections.” The same cannot be said, however, of the requirement the Department cites about a program providing a “full understanding” of the area, region, or country of study. Here, the Department interprets this as requiring a “balance of perspectives.” But what should that balance be? To what extent is “balance” required to “fully understand” an area? The contours of what constitutes a “full understanding” of a subject of study are properly determined by an academic institution, not the federal government. 

While the Department of Education correctly recognizes that some of the challenged activities are “perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom,” it argues that they are nevertheless “plainly unqualified for taxpayer support” through the program it administers. The federal government may fairly condition the award of funds on the satisfaction of certain criteria, but determining how best to satisfy grant terms that involve academic or pedagogical judgments, especially those which contain ambiguity, should remain the province of the academy. What constitutes the “full understanding” of complicated subjects should be determined through open discourse and the “sifting and winnowing” of ideas best facilitated by the academy.

Both the grant review and its announcement appear to represent a sharp deviation from past interpretation and practice regarding Title VI National Resource Center grantmaking, calling into question the aims of the review and amplifying its potential impact on academic decision-making moving forward. 

The Department’s review of Duke-UNC CMES activities and application is further concerning because it appears to have been precipitated by a federal legislator’s distaste for a viewpoint expressed by a performer at a campus event sponsored by Duke-UNC CMES this March. As FIRE has stated previously, elected officials are free to disagree with members of a university community, but must not use their office to pressure colleges and universities to infringe upon the rights of students or faculty members to hear viewpoints that some, many, or even most find offensive. 

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