Academics disagree on Title VI overhaul

With heightened vigilance in a post-Sept. 11 United States, some politicians say it is necessary to keep a closer watch over international and foreign language studies programs. Many in academia, however, say such measures would give Congress unprecedented and inappropriate authority over academic programs.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., introduced a bill Sept. 11, 2003, to amend Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the whole of which is up for renewal this year. The bill passed in the House of Representatives Oct. 21 and will come before the Senate early next year.

Under Title VI of the HEA--which was first authorized in 1965--the government provides funding for foreign language and area studies programs. The amended title would create an International Advisory Board to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Education and Congress on international education issues for higher education.

John Burness, Duke's senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the legislation, if passed, could threaten academic freedom.

"The government has the right, if it gives money for a program, to have some expectation about how that money is spent," Burness said. "But it's different when the government puts itself in a position where it could possibly define a curriculum or politicize the process of review of that program."

In July testimony before the House Subcommittee on Select Education, Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and one of the most vocal lobbyists in favor of increased government oversight of Title VI programs, argued that Title VI programs are potentially biased. This bias--especially in programs focused on the Middle East--necessitates the International Advisory Board that Burness and others deplore, Kurtz said.

"If programs are allowed to continue without this legislation, I think we'll see more of what we've gotten up to now," Kurtz wrote in an e-mail. "Publicly subsidized outreach programs for K-12 teachers will continue to be biased, boycotts of national security scholarships will continue and Congress will be disappointed in its hopes that special subsidies for area studies programs will do anything at all to bring people with more knowledge of foreign languages and cultures into our defense and intelligence agencies."

Gilbert Merkx, Duke's vice provost for international affairs, said claims of bias in Title VI program are bogus, made mostly by "pro-Israeli hawks" who are opposed to the direction Middle East studies have taken.

"The people who are fighting for this advisory board are people from extreme conservative organizations. They have made a series of unsubstantiated allegations about universities and programming, most of which are quite unfair and haven't been documented satisfactorily," Merkx said. "They want a board that can bash grantees and say we're unpatriotic and don't support American policy, but in my judgment, it is just untrue."

Merkx said he is not opposed to the idea of an advisory board, but he worried that the board as constituted in the new bill will be inappropriate for review of Title VI programs.

"The determination of how well we're doing in teaching foreign languages and providing information of foreign areas will not be made by academics and area experts but by people from national intelligence agencies," Merkx said. "That's just not how you do it."

The proposed advisory board would consist of seven members, three appointed by the Secretary of Education and two each by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Two of the members appointed by the Secretary would represent federal security agencies. The bill also states that members of the board shall include representatives of higher education institutions and cultural organizations, students and private citizens with expertise in international concerns, among others.

The bill also states that the advisory board would not be subject to review or approval by any officer of the federal government but that it also would not have authority to "mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction."

Kurtz said the advisory board would not restrict academic freedom, as it forbids any government control of curriculum. Rather, he said, it would determine which programs will receive special subsidies to encourage their activities.

"No program without money will be silenced. It's simply a question of what criteria to use in deciding who gets a special subsidy," Kurtz wrote. "This legislation would provide some gentle, non-mandatory and very indirect incentives for long-term reform."

Those opposed to the legislation, however, were less certain about the innocuousness of the advisory board. Although the board will technically only be allowed to advise on issues pertaining to Title VI programs, it could still create a very intimidating environment for area studies faculty who would have to submit to ideological investigations, said Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant to the Coalition for International Education.

"You might look at this as a Trojan horse," Kazanjian said. "They're couching it as an advisory board, but if you actually look at the language of the legislation, it's more than that. The House may not have intended it this way, but that's in fact the way the language reads."

Merkx said he was concerned that the advisory board would be able to instigate hearings akin to the hearings Sen. Joseph McCarthy instigated in the 1950s--a fear he shares with Ralph Litzinger, associate professor of cultural anthropology.

"It is a direct attack on scholars who have insisted on the integrity of academic independence from the ideologies and foreign policy initiatives of the U.S. government," Litzinger said.


Share and discuss “Academics disagree on Title VI overhaul” on social media.