Earlier this September, the Department of Education ordered sweeping changes to a Middle Eastern studies program run jointly by Duke University and the University of North Carolina. The MES program was rebuked for not complying with Title VI, which grants federal funding to international studies programs, and criticized for various reasons, including the placement of “considerable emphasis on ... the positive aspects of Islam” and an absence of “positive” imagery of Judaism and Christianity. Assistant secretary for postsecondary education Robert King, author of the official statement published by the DOE. regarding Duke-UNC’s consortium, also disparaged the program for its irrelevance to “the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability.”
This overstep by the DOE represents an alarming infringement by the federal government on academic freedom and university curricula. It challenges academic integrity by regulating the ideas, discussions, and topics that professors and leading experts can explore and teach. It also limits the debates and questions that can be raised among students and confines the dimensions through which students can examine issues. This is especially pertinent in political science and international studies, where in-class education may be a student’s first and only exposure to a new government, country, or culture and shape it for years.
Apart from shattering the premise of trust in academia to shape well-rounded and diverse curricula, the DOE’s proposed changes flatten and dull the Duke-UNC MES program. While discussions of religious minorities are always important, suggestions that the consortium’s portrayal of Islam was too positive at the expense of Judaism and Christianity reflect the blatantly Islamophobic rhetoric that has dogged the Trump administration time and time again. King specifically cited the irrelevance to the “statutory goals” of national security and economic stability of a class offering called “Love and Desire in Modern Iran” as well as a grant proposal entitled “Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition.”
What King and the rest of the DOE don’t seem to realize is that university classes aren’t offered solely to churn out people who will serve the United States’ political interests, but so they can produce citizens with a thorough and rich understanding of cultures and schemas outside their own borders. Classes on art, film and love humanize the people of the Middle East, who have too often been villainized by American politicians and pundits and viewed as economic or security threats. In fact, some of Dartmouth’s most beloved classes on the Middle East are about women, fiction and theater; like most other MES programs, ours seeks to fully realize a realm of ideas parallel to and as valuable as our own. The DOE’s demands for Duke-UNC’s MES program reflects the approach it takes toward the rest of the world — an approach which has no place on college campuses and grates against the mission of a liberal arts education.
The full scope of the DOE’s operations against nationwide curricula are currently unclear. In any case, Duke and UNC are wealthy schools that enjoy a healthy dose of prestige and money; their administrations can afford to do practically whatever they want with relative impunity. But what happens if the DOE moves against the curricula of smaller colleges and public universities who cannot afford to lose federal funding? The department could put forth a familiar “catch-22” for these institutions — a demand that ostensibly allows them the choice to preserve their curricular status quos but cripples them financially by removing federal grants. In other words, while not explicitly restricting freedoms, the department could foist its will on institutions which cannot afford not to comply.
However, if the DOE only plans to target high-profile schools like Duke and UNC, then it is obvious that rather than attempting to improve the overall quality of higher education as it sees fit, the DOE is pushing a political agenda under this guise. Otherwise, why focus on this issue in the face of the many other issues indubitably rife in the U.S. higher education system? The DOE’s agenda could be described as Islamophobic and xenophobic, but the crux of the issue is that the DOE has failed in its mission of promoting “educational excellence” and failed to preserve the freedoms on which America is supposedly predicated.
Duke and UNC have responded by refusing to implement the DOE’s suggested changes. Being monetarily privileged and high-profile universities, Duke and UNC’s power to set a symbolic example to the Department and for other universities is immeasurable; its stand therefore has powerful implications for our own institution. As the so-called “College on the Hill” and a proponent of the liberal arts, Dartmouth College — and its students — should stand in solidarity with Duke and UNC and remain vigilant in regard to encroachments on academic freedom.
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