A smoke screen for Palestine-pushers

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 3.

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).

Brown claims that federally-funded area studies centers are “essential” for U.S. policy, a “vital national asset,” and “often the only sources of knowledge when crises erupt in unfamiliar places.” They’ve done an “outstanding job of training” Middle East experts, and “political” criticism of them “threatens the ability of the United States to understand the world and act effectively in it.” If you don’t like it that “an individual faculty member offends a supporter of a particular political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog be caught in the crossfire?” Should “programming that is critical of Israel on some campuses endanger all funding for international education?”

Those are valid questions, but they’re posed disingenuously. Here are Brown’s two main elisions:

1. The only people who think that these centers are a “vital national asset” are the professors who collect the money. Over the years, there have been a series of government-sponsored reviews of these Title VI programs (reference is to the authorizing title of the Higher Education Act), and not one review has concluded that the programs do anything resembling an “outstanding job,” especially on languages. (The last major review, by the National Academies, concluded there was “insufficient information to judge program performance.”)

The claim that these centers are “often the only sources of knowledge” on emerging trouble spots is just untrue. That’s rarely the case, and as regards the Middle East, it’s now never the case. Government has had to assemble the full range of capabilities, from area expertise to language training, in-house. That’s why the Obama administration—yes, the Obama administration!—cut the budget of this “vital national asset” by 40 percent back in 2011. The only lobbying for Title VI funding comes from within academe itself.

2. The “political” criticism of Title VI Middle East centers is a response to the rampant politicization of some of these centers by those who run them, and who’ve mobilized them against Israel. This isn’t a matter of “an individual faculty member” here or there. It’s a plague that arises from overall attitudes in the field. Brown knows the problem, which is why he recently issued a letter to MESA’s members effectively imploring them not to drag the organization into a BDS debate.

One obvious effect has been to drive the study of Israel almost completely out of these centers, into separately-funded and administered Israel studies programs. Some Title VI Middle East centers, thus relieved of the burden of fairly presenting Israel, have become even more blatant purveyors of pro-Palestinian agitprop. This fall, for the first time, half a dozen Title VI center directors openly pledged to boycott Israeli academe. How might that impact the centers they administer? No one really knows.

A case can be made for Title VI. Not every Middle East center is a shameful disaster, and most of the funding goes to centers specializing in other world areas. Brown alludes to some of these arguments. But his broader defense of the Middle Eastern end of Title VI is a misleading attempt to throw up a smoke screen for the very people who really threaten the program: radical professors who treat it as a slush fund to promote their political causes on campus. If Title VI gets rough treatment in the present reauthorization, students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog should know who’s at fault: the Palestine-pushers who’ve fouled the academic nest with their relentless propagandizing.

Title VI verdict

I’m closely reading the new Title VI review prepared by a panel of the National Research Council for the National Academies, at the request of Congress. (Read the press release here.)

I’m not quite done considering the implications of the review for language and area studies, and for Middle Eastern studies in particular. But I’m in broad accord with Stanley Kurtz’s assessment, published yesterday at National Review Online. Kurtz hailed the review as vindication of our critique of Title VI, and I read it the same way. If the area studies establishment thought they’d get a “job-well-done” pat on the back, they’ve certainly been disappointed. The panel did affirm that the job is important and deserves more resources, but also emphasized that no one knows whether the job is being done well or not.

This is largely a problem of the Department of Education, and the recommendations for enhanced oversight, measurement, and reporting far exceed anything Kurtz and I envisioned when we supported a Title VI advisory board. We were never quite sure just how such a board would operate anyway, but we rallied to its defense when it came under attack by an unholy alliance of establishment deans and campus radicals.

The accountability machine now proposed by the National Academies looks more streamlined and effective than an advisory board. In particular, we welcome the proposed Presidential appointment of an arch-overseer for Title VI and related programs in the Department of Education. The panel recommendations specify that this appointee, after Senate confirmation, would strategize over “national needs” with other federal agencies. The National Academies names three departments in particular: State, Defense, and the Directorate of National Intelligence. Our advisory board would have met once a year, at most. A full-time accountability czar, owing his allegiance to the White House, would bear down on Title VI year-round.

Add to this the proposal that all Title VI programs get independent reviews every four or five years, and that the Department of Education prepare biennial progress reports in consultation and cooperation with those other agencies, and you have a formula for revamping Title VI from top to bottom. When I appeared before the panel last fall, I said this:

I propose to you that you consider whether Title VI needs a mechanism to assist in the implementation of your recommendations…. The best way to keep the program aligned with evolving national need in a rapidly changing environment is to create an independent mechanism that will do exactly what you are doing now, year-in-and-year-out.

That’s precisely what the panel has proposed.

The top lobbyist of the American Council on Education pretended to find a silver lining in the review, when he suggested that it exonerated Title VI grantees of bias charges. In fact, the review specifically says that the panel was not charged with investigating bias, and that “the committee considers it beyond our charge to reach any definitive judgment of the issue.” Because this panel didn’t investigate the bias issue, it remains an open one, to be addressed separately should Congress choose to do so. There are important provisions that would do just that, in the Senate version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization.

The crew at the National Academies spent more than a year working on this review, and it deserves more analysis than I’ve just provided. But implementing its recommendations would be an unprecedented step toward revitalizing Title VI. I personally thank the panel for the opportunity to appear before it, to make a critic’s case.

Accountability and Vindication (Title VI)

On March 28, 2007, Inside Higher Education’s Scott Jaschik reported on the findings of the National Research Council study of Title VI. The article is here. Martin Kramer posted this comment at the site. Posted retroactively here at Sandbox.

This report names and quotes me as a Title VI critic who feels vindicated by the panel report. That I am. And the panel report’s demands for greater accountability go even further than those reported by Mr. Jaschik.

For example, one of our criticisms has been the disconnect between Title VI and the needs of the federal government. A key recommendation of the panel reads as follows:

“Congress should require the secretary of education, in consultation and coordination with the departments of State and Defense, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other relevant agencies to submit a biennial report outlining national needs identified in foreign language, area, and international studies, plans for addressing these needs, and progress made. This report should be made available to the public.”

This revolutionary proposal directly links Title VI and other academic language programs to the need perceptions of the major national security agencies of the United States. The public, biennial report would give Congress and the public a basis on which to determine whether these programs are meeting “national needs,” and not just the whims of academics.

Likewise, the incumbent of the new position envisioned at the Education Department would not only oversee and coordinate programs. This “executive-level” appointee would “provide strategic direction, and consult and coordinate with other federal agencies. The position should be one that requires presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.” The report also calls on this appointee to have his or her own staff. In effect, this would be an accountability czar, who would owe allegiance directly to the White House.

These provisions, when combined with the requirement of independent reviews of all programs every four or five years, add up to an accountability machine that exceeds what we envisioned in an advisory board. We could not be more pleased.

As to bias, Mr. Hartle of the American Council on Education is cited as claiming that the leaders of the panel vindicated the position of academics that there is no bias in Title VI programs. In fact, only Professor Prewitt made that “finding,” and stressed that he did so on a personal basis. Coming from a professor at Columbia, where bias made the front pages of the New York Times, this is not much of a reassurance.

In fact, the report specifically says that the panel was not charged with investigating bias, and that “the committee considers it beyond our charge to reach any definitive judgment of the issue.” Can this be called vindication? Because this panel did not investigate the bias issue, it remains an open one, to be addressed separately should Congress choose to do so. There are important provisions that would do just that, in the Senate version of the Higher Education Act reauthorization.

I personally wish to take this opportunity to thank the panel for its work, and for the opportunity to appear before it to make a critic’s case. All of us have an interest in seeing these programs flourish. The report is an important step in that direction.