The U.S. Department of Education has notified Duke University and the University of North Carolina that their joint Middle East studies program might see its federal funding curtailed.

In a letter dated Aug. 29 and published Tuesday in the Federal Register, Assistant Secretary Robert King wrote that the Education Department is “concerned” that the Center for Middle East Studies, which promotes the learning of critical Mideast languages, might lose its Title VI funds.

Issue with Iran curriculum

The Education Department, headed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, takes issue with curriculum around Iran.

“Although Iranian art and film may be subjects of deep intellectual interest and may provide insight regarding aspects of the people and culture of the Middle East, the sheer volume of such offerings highlights a fundamental misalignment between your choices and Title VI’s mandates,” the letter stated.

“Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern Iran’ and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability,” the letter said.

The department laments that elements of the Middle East program do not, in its opinion, hold up under Title VI as it applies to the teaching of Farsi, or Persian, the national language in Iran. The program is in jeopardy of losing its $235,000 federal grant.

Lack of balance

Additionally, the Education Department letter said the studies program “lacks balance” in focusing on “the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, Druze, and others,” instead placing “considerable emphasis” on “the positive aspects of Islam.”

“To be clear, activities focusing on American culture or academic preferences that do not directly promote foreign language learning and advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States are not to be funded under Title VI,” the letter continued.

The Education Department asked Duke-UNC “to demonstrate that it has prioritized foreign language instruction as required by law” and “to provide the department with a full list of courses in Middle East studies, including academic rank and employment status of each instructor who teaches each course.”

Language learning

The federal government supports critical-language learning around the world through immersive experiences, including the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program for college students that grants “summer study abroad opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America’s engagement with the world.”

The U.S. Department of Defense also offers similar critical-language training through its Project Global Officer, or Go program, “a collaborative initiative that promotes critical-language education, study abroad, and intercultural dialogue opportunities for Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students. Project GO programs focus on the languages and countries of the Middle East, Asia, Central Asia, Africa, and South America.”

Those languages include Arabic and Persian.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the department was motivated by what it sees as an anti-Israel movement on college campuses that participate in “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions.” That movement criticizes policies in Israel over the treatment of Palestinians.

“The department’s civil rights chief, Ken Marcus, previously ran an advocacy organization that filed civil rights complaints against BDS groups on campuses, arguing that they discriminated against Jewish students,” the Journal reported.

Hebrew is included in the list of critical languages the federal government promotes, according to the website of the National Security Education Program. The program is “a major federal initiative designed to build a broader and more qualified pool of U.S. citizens with foreign language and international skills,” according to its website.

The universities have a deadline of Sept. 22 to respond.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran have been severed since 1980, when Iran held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days. Recent tensions over Iran’s nuclear program have escalated the conflict.

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