Academics Organizations Criticize Department of Education Investigation of Middle East Study Program

Students walk through the UNC-Chapel Hill campus in Feb. 2019. Photo by Dennis Ludlow/Creative Commons

Nineteen academic organizations, including the American Academy of Religion, have signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Education objecting to its investigation into a Middle East studies program run jointly by the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

Last month, the department ordered the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings or risk losing future funding from a federal grant that’s awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction.

The department accused the consortium of “advancing ideological priorities” and promoting the “positive aspects of Islam,” but not of Christianity or Judaism. The accusations of the program were published in the Federal Register on Aug. 29.

The investigation into the Duke-UNC consortium was ordered by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after North Carolina Rep. George Holding, a Republican, complained about a taxpayer-funded conference at UNC with “severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

In their letter, the academic organizations said the department’s allegations constitute an “unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.”

It also said the department’s accusation that some activities were unauthorized appears to be based on “a fundamental misunderstanding of how expertise in foreign languages, cultural competencies, and area and international knowledge in general is obtained.”

The Society of Biblical Literature, an international organization devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of disciplines, and the Middle East Studies Association, a nonprofit that fosters the study of the Middle East, were among the co-signers of the letter.

Late last week, UNC sent the Department of Education a lengthy response disputing the accusations of bias and saying it provides “positive appreciation” of Christianity and Judaism, including programs that detail the persecution faced by religious minorities in the Middle East.

“The Consortium’s activities ‘reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs,’ in compliance with 20 U.S. Code 1122,” UNC responded.

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Source: Religion News Service