Last March, Donald Trump signed an executive order requiring federally-funded universities to defend “academic freedom” on campus. “If a college or university doesn’t allow you to speak, we won’t give them money,” he said. “It’s that simple.”
It turns out — to everyone’s surprise, I’m certain — that his promise was entirely conditional: whether it applies depends on what you’re saying.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration threatened National Resource Center funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (Duke-UNC CMES), a decades-old collaboration between Duke University and the University of North Carolina promoting greater understanding of issues facing the Middle East.
The Department of Education, headed up by Betsy DeVos, considers the curriculum unbalanced, in essence, because it is insufficiently negative towards Islam and insufficiently positive towards Judaism and Christianity. They said as much in a notice concerning the issue, released on Tuesday:
In your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on… understanding the positive aspects of Islam, while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East. This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting legal requirement that National Resource Centres “provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries” in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used.
The document went on to allege that the program places “a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities” at the expense of “serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs.” As if teaching students about Islam in the context of Middle Eastern culture is too one-sided.
The document never gave evidence that the course was anti-Christian. They’re just mad too much attention is being paid to Islam in a way you wouldn’t normally see on FOX News.
Secretary of Education DeVos ordered an inquiry into the program after Representative George Holding (R-NC) sent a letter alleging “radical anti-Israeli bias” in a conference sponsored by the Duke-UNC CMES program.
Members of the American Association of University Professors expressed concern that, while National Resource Center funding is specifically earmarked for programs that support careers in diplomacy and national security, these particular accusations have more to do with “right-wing political correctness” and the failures of academia to reflect Republicans’ prejudices back to them.
The reality is that no course of study on the complexity of the Middle East can be examined in a vacuum. Professors must correct for assumptions about Islam, Judaism, and Christianity at play in the students’ broader context. In a culture that does not treat these religions equally — and under a government with a prominent pro-Israel stance and a strong tendency to demonize Muslims — a lack of balance is required to provide the “full understanding” the National Resource Center wants.
Jay Smith, vice-president of the University of North Carolina’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said it best when he requested that the Department of Education step aside to “allow the experts to determine what constitutes a ‘full understanding’ of the Middle East.”
Sadly, this is Trump’s America, where one person’s informed opinion is as good as another’s ignorance.