In Other Ivory Towers: DOE investigates UNC, Duke Program

Irene Loewenson

The U.S. Department of Education has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) to make changes to their jointly-run Middle East studies program, due in part to the program’s alleged bias in favor of Islam and against other religions.

In an Aug. 29 letter to a UNC official, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King declared that the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (Duke-UNC CMES) had failed to meet the requirements of a Title VI grant for programs in international studies. Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965  funds grants to higher education programs in foreign languages, amongst other things. It is distinct from Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, which bans racial discrimination in higher education. 

The letter cited, among other perceived problems, the consortium’s “considerable emphasis placed on the understanding [of] the positive aspects of Islam” and “absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East.” In the letter, King highlighted the grant’s requirement that programs “provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries.” 

“The Duke-UNC CMES appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze and others,” King wrote.

King also criticized the program for what he characterized as an excessive emphasis on Middle Eastern culture and art at the expense of geography, history and language. He ordered the universities to “provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for 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.”

Erica L. Green, writing for The New York Times, linked King’s criticisms to a broader push against “perceived anti-Israel bias in higher education” by the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos. “That focus appears to reflect the views of an agency leadership that includes a civil rights chief, Kenneth L. Marcus [’88], 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,” Green wrote.

UNC has suggested publicly that it will attempt to meet King’s demands. “The consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program,” the university said in a statement quoted in the Times. “In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the consortium is committed to working with the department to provide more information about its programs.”

The Duke-UNC CMES must show that it plans to alter its curriculum or risk losing the $235,000 in funding it receives under Title VI.