'Policing the Academies': Funding Bill Ignites Fears: Government Oversight Proposed for International Studies Receiving Federal Money; Critics Say Middle East Scholarship Is the Target

Article excerpt

American scholars are alarmed by a controversial education bill that would increase government monitoring of federally funded programs in international studies at colleges and universities. Backers of the bill say it will help restore balance to Middle East studies programs, which they say are overly critical of Israel and of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Opponents say the bill could lead to intrusive investigations of faculty and will undermine the credibility of American scholarship.

Known as HR 3077, the International Studies in Education Act, the legislation reauthorizes funding for international studies. Its most controversial provision calls for the establishment of an advisory board comprised of seven government appointees: one each chosen by the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress and three selected by the Secretary of Education, two of whom represent agencies responsible for national security. The proposed board would have the authority "to study, monitor, apprise and evaluate a sample of activities" to ensure that programs represent "diverse perspectives."

Although the legislation was born out of the polarized debate about Middle East studies, it will apply to a variety of other academic programs related to international studies, including the study and research of modern languages, area studies and anthropology.

The bill passed by a wide majority in the House of Representatives last October and is scheduled to come before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in September.

Fear of its passage in the Senate has evoked strong condemnations and letters of protest from academics and their professional associations.

"It is not the government's place to be policing the academies," said John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs and of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.

Advocates of the bill argue that an oversight board is needed to rectify what they say has been an unchecked problem--scholars teaching courses "hostile to American foreign policy interests" while receiving federal monies.

"Too many people are too used to receiving open-ended subsidies. The whole notion that these subsidies are tied to national security interests has been lost," said Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who first proposed a government-appointed advisory board during a house subcommittee hearing on bias in international studies held June 19, 2003.

Scott Fleming, Georgetown University's assistant for federal relations, observed that national interests are best served through programs that "increase cultural and language understanding" rather than promote a specific policy.

"In the current environment, solid knowledge [of the region] is important. It might not be what we want to hear. To say that we need an advisory committee that is conducting a political correctness test would not serve our national interests," Fleming said.

The primary endorsers of HR 3077 include the American Jewish Congress, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League all of which are lobbying hard for the bill's passage in the Senate.

What about faculty?

Although the proposed advisory board is not authorized "to mandate, direct or control" instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction, many in academia worry the legislation could subject colleges and universities to intrusive and time-consuming investigations.

"The one word missing in that list of things the beard would not direct or control is 'faculty.' Would bugging a classroom or a faculty office constitute monitoring a sample?" asked Robert Scholes in an article entitled "An Advisory Board to Be Wary of' that appeared in the May 14 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Scholes, a research professor of modern culture and media at Brown University, is also president of the Modern Language Association. …