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.

USA Today, Duped by Michigan Profs!

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.