Title VI: A Majority for Defunding

Above are the results of the month-long Title VI poll, conducted at this website and at Campus-Watch.org. And here are the usual caveats: it’s not scientific, it’s only the opinions of people who visit these websites, people might have voted twice (though they couldn’t from the same IP address), etc. Now, having said all that, let’s jump to some conclusions.

A decisive majority of those polled favor defunding Title VI altogether. It’s a surprising result, since I’ve never advocated defunding on this website. My preferred option has been reform through the provisions of H.R. 3077. Apparently there are a lot of people who think that reform of Title VI is a waste of time, and that the program itself is a waste of money.

My message to the academics who have agitated against H.R. 3077 is simple: this majority is waiting for you around the corner. So far, no one has tried to mobilize them in a campaign for defunding. But if the reform bill gets mauled in Congress, someone will tap into this reservoir of discontent and distrust to deprive Title VI of funding, probably by proposing an alternative. It’s an entrepreneurial country, and if someone comes to Congress with a better idea, it’ll get a hearing.

The demand for an alternative will only deepen if things get worse in Iraq—that is, if it really does become a “quagmire.” The public hasn’t yet fixed blame for the on-the-ground problems that have beset the United States. But some of it could easily settle upon the academy, for failing to prepare this country for its mission despite almost fifty years of federal subsidies for area studies. That would make Title VI a tempting target for retribution. Lots of people in the academy have rushed to compare Iraq to Vietnam. Whatever you think of the comparison, remember this outcome of the Vietnam war: Richard Nixon zero-budgeted Title VI. In his 1970 budget message, Nixon called the program “outmoded.” It was saved by Congress, but its budget was halved.

Paradoxically, a campaign to cut Title VI funding would meet less resistance than the present campaign on behalf of H.R. 3077. The academics have framed their agitation against the bill opportunistically, as a defense of academic freedom against the alleged horrors of an advisory board. This has gotten them the support of a whole range of off-campus activists who just love to pose as champions of free speech. After all, that’s how the ACLU justifies its existence and raises its own funds. But you can be sure that these same activists wouldn’t lift a finger to defend academe’s subsidies against appropriations cuts, if there were no matter of supposed principle at stake. After all, Harvard and Princeton aren’t starving. Title VI now supports seventeen federally-funded Middle East centers, more than at any time in history. If Congress decided to cut that number to twelve or ten, would the ACLU send an impassioned letter to the Hill (as it did against H.R. 3077)? The answer is a pretty obvious “no.”

But surely, you say, Congress wouldn’t cut budgets for international studies at a time of growing American need. I don’t think Congress would completely defund Title VI, but that’s where alternatives come into play. Take the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which was established following the Kuwait war. It gives scholarships to students in return for a commitment to government service. It’s now running a pilot of the National Flagship Language Initiative, a new approach to producing graduates with advanced levels of language proficiency. Until now, the NSEP has operated out of a trust fund created by a one-time appropriation in 1991. But the fund is depleted, and the NSEP will have to go to annual appropriations if it’s going to survive. The figure that’s out there is $20 million a year. That could easily be shaved off the $90 million that now go to Title VI; such a cut would only set Title VI back to where it was before 9/11.

I could go on and on with other alternatives, but you get the idea. Title VI is vulnerable. Paradoxically, an advisory board appointed by Congress could provide the program with a built-in tripwire against defunding initiatives, and lock Congress into the reform approach. But many academics, especially the more radical ones, either can’t see it, or think they can kill the board but keep the money. To judge from our straw poll, that’s a very risky assumption. Were H.R. 3077 to be defeated or gutted, it’s easy to imagine Title VI with no board, less money, and an uncertain future. And if Iraq turns out badly, it’s easy to imagine a Congress angry enough to create alternatives at the expense of Title VI, so that America will be ready next time.