USA Today runs an editorial this morning against the advisory board provision of H.R. 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act. The editorial opens by presenting the University of Michigan’s faculty as scholars with their shoulders to the wheel:
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the University of Michigan has tried to help the U.S. government understand anti-U.S. terrorism in the Arab world and deal with the threat. It has increased the enrollment of students studying Arabic tenfold, helped military leaders learn about the culture of Islamic countries and led seminars for State Department officials on waging public diplomacy.
Michigan and dozens of other universities have expanded their Middle Eastern studies using a $90 million-a-year federal grant program designed to increase the number of Arabic translators and analysts the government can hire. But some squeamish members of Congress who don’t trust what university professors teach about Middle East politics jeopardize the efforts.
Now who are those distrustful Congressmen to get in the way of the good Arabic professors at the University of Michigan, who are helping us beat back the terrorists by teaching Arabic to future government officials?
Dear readers, USA Today has been completely and utterly duped. The University of Michigan is famous for its Arabic instruction. It’s also infamous for its consistent refusal, before 9/11 and since, to cooperate with the federal government in training Arabists for government service.
The Title VI program—that $90 million-a-year-program—isn’t designed to increase the number of Arabic translators. It’s a subsidy that largely goes to minting new Ph.D.’s., who want jobs in universities. That’s why Washington, a few years back, came up with the idea of government-funded language academies on American campuses. The government would fund some teaching positions and student fellowships. The grads would incur a service obligation. It’s now called the National Flagship Language Initiative (NFLI)—a part of the National Security Education Program—and Washington wanted to implement it for Arabic at the University of Michigan.
In October 2001, The Michigan Daily reported that the university’s Arabic department had been offered funds by the NFLI pilot program, and was considering accepting them. But the department was “currently debating the pros and cons.” In particular, some of the faculty were “worried about whether the program goals, for students to learn Arabic and then use the language for work in the Federal Bureau of Investigation or other governmental agencies, clashes with the mission of the department.”
In the end, Michigan turned Washington down. “We didn’t want our students to be known as spies in training,” puffed Carol Bardenstein, an assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture. “By intertwining intelligence and academics, we’d essentially be recruiting Arabs to later inform on members of their own community.” Time ran the story under the headline: “No Spooks, Please. We’re Academics.”
Michigan wasn’t alone. When the board of the Middle East Studies Association ( MESA) met the following spring, it issued a resolution calling on MESA members and institutions not to accept NFLI funding. MESA expressed itself “uneasy” about “the direct link that [the NFLI] envisions between academic programs and government employment.” It was “apprehensive” that the program would link all language students “by association” with the Defense Department. And MESA feared that the program “may foster the already widespread impression that academic researchers from the United States are directly involved in government activities.” The board has yet to rescind that decision. (But the University of Washington took the funds for Arabic anyway.)
And the University of Michigan? Oh, they came out just fine. They turned down the NFLI, but they came up winners in the next Title VI cycle. So they’re swimming in fellowship money to produce more academics. And their Arabic professors won’t have to soil their reputations by teaching those “spies in training.” You see, Title VI is a wonderful no-strings-attached subsidy, an entitlement, the great fellowship slush fund by which academics clone themselves. Remember Professor Bardenstein, quoted above? She spent three years on a Title VI fellowship, doing a thesis on an obscure nineteenth-century Egyptian translator of French literature. Why did the United States pay for such extravagance? On the assumption that somehow, some way, her knowing Arabic might serve the national interest. Now do you believe that?
In response to H.R. 3077, the academics are mounting a massive campaign of deception and disinformation. I’m impressed: some prof or public relations official at Michigan duped the editors at USA Today into presenting the professors at Ann Arbor as team-players in the war on terror, when in fact they’ve refused to play ball. These profs aren’t part of the solution to the shortage of Arabic-competent people in government service. They’re part of the problem, and they’re why, after forty-five years of Title VI, we still don’t have enough of the right people in the right places.
Title VI will cost you and me half a billion dollars over the next five years. It’s received a massive increase in funding since 9/11. It’s time for Congress to cut through all the half-truths and falsehoods churned out by professors and education lobbyists. We need to know if Title VI meets some national need, and if not, how it should be improved. That’s why Title VI needs an advisory board.
Stanley Kurtz, also in USA Today, makes the case for just such a board.
Clarification. MESA’s board has never rescinded its anti-NFLI resolution. A full year after its passage, and in response to continued criticism, the board deleted the paragraph urging MESA member institutions not to take NFLI funds. However, another resolution against accepting funding from the National Security Education Program, the NFLI’s parent program, still stands, and figures prominently on MESA’s website.