Confessions of a Scheming Vice Provost

A little over a year ago, USA Today ran an editorial against H.R. 3077, the Title VI reform bill for the program that lavishes federal subsidies on area studies in universities. (Readers of this space know that I’ve been an ardent supporter of Title VI reform, and particularly of an advisory board that would match the program’s priorities with national needs.) The premise of the editorial: Why, Title VI is humming along just fine! Take a look at the University of Michigan, for example. They’re helping the U.S. government to understand terrorism, and they’ve boosted their Arabic enrollments tenfold! Michigan and the others have their shoulders to the wheel, producing Arabic translators for government service! Can’t Congress just leave well enough alone, and trust the profs for a change?

The absurdities embedded in this editorial so incensed me that I had a response on this site before the newspaper landed on most doorsteps. Okay, take the University of Michigan for example, I wrote. Michigan’s Mideast faculty had refused to partner with the government in its flagship program for intensive Arabic study on campuses. The political rationale, as explained by one professor: “We didn’t want our students to be known as spies in training.”

So while Michigan was happy to suck Title VI dollars out of Washington for doctoral students who worship at their professors’ feet, they wouldn’t hear of training anyone for government service. As I put it: “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.”

Now we learn who that Michigan prof was, because he’s written about the campaign he helped to run against H.R. 3077. He’s sociologist Michael D. Kennedy, an expert on Eastern Europe, and at the time he was vice provost for international affairs. Kennedy now claims to have inspired that USA Today editorial, as his contribution to the campaign run by dozens of deans and vice provosts across America.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that not everything in the editorial was factually true. “The numbers of Arabic language students increased,” Kennedy now writes, “but not tenfold.” That was a “mistake,” although it’s not clear who made it, and I saw no evidence at the time that Kennedy rushed to correct it. But this was only one small untruth in the parade of lies that marked academe’s campaign against H.R. 3077. It was almost more than I could do to keep up with the fabrications that poured forth from otherwise respectable academic leaders. The campaign taught me that when it comes to keeping their entitlements free of accountability, vice provosts are just as loose with the truth as tobacco lobbyists.

Kennedy’s account runs something like this. In 2003, Title VI came under “attack” from a band of politically-motivated marauders on the margins of Middle Eastern studies, who only wanted to “inflame political passions.” They got a lot more traction than they deserved, because their message plugged into popular discontent about bias in the universities. They’ve been beaten back, at least for now, due to “many people [who] worked very hard to put the cruder Title VI critiques in their proper place,” and thanks to that old stalwart, Sen. Ted Kennedy (no relation, I presume).

Still, warns Professor Kennedy, the “ideologues” could be back, so the best defense is to show that area studies are willing partners of government, that they aren’t averse to trading ideas with officials, that they really are relevant to issues of national security. “The debate about security,” Kennedy writes, “should move more toward the center of our academic missions.”

Professor Kennedy goes still further, arguing that there’s nothing wrong with academics who rub shoulders with national security agencies. “There are certainly some academic colleagues who would not approve of seminars involving the military, CIA, or even State Department officials,” Kennedy allows, “but then we also have colleagues who don’t approve when Shell executives come to town, or when students organize Palestinian Solidarity conferences, or when gay issues are taught in the class room.” In other words: so what?

Imagine! And from Ann Arbor! That’s a sign of real progress, and I and my fellow “ideologues” are pleased to seize some of the credit for it. It used to be that such contacts had to be concealed in shame. Now they’re paraded as evidence that federal subsidies are justified. That wouldn’t have happened were it not for the Title VI controversy.

So I’ll set aside Professor Kennedy’s pompous depiction of area studies as a seat of “analytical rigor and intellectual integrity,” as opposed to the “politicized ideology” represented by Title VI reform advocates like Stanley Kurtz and myself. That’s provost-speak. Politicized ideology runs rampant throughout area studies (think Columbia, or Juan Cole, University of… yes, Michigan). But if attacking us makes it easier for liberals on campus to justify government partnerships to the campus radicals—well, so be it. That’s academic politics. Kurtz and I can take it, as we take our bow.

P.S. Title VI reform, round two, looms just up the pike. I’ll say more shortly.