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Duke-UNC Consortium received '19-20 funding from the Education Department amid controversy

Despite concerns from the U.S. Department of Education over its use of Title VI funds, the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) still received funding for the 2019-20 academic year, according to emails obtained by The Chronicle.

In order to continue receiving Title VI funding, the Department of Education required that the CMES send it an activity schedule for the upcoming year to show how its activities encourage foreign language learning and further the “national security interests and economic stability of the United States,” according to a letter from the Department published in the Federal Register. The plan was to be submitted by Sept. 22, so that the Department could provide the funds for the CMES by Sept. 30. 

According to a public records request by The Chronicle, Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, replied to the Department of Education’s letter Sept. 20. Angela Morabito, press secretary for the Department of Education, wrote in a Sept. 25 email to The Chronicle that the Department had gotten a response back from the CMES and was in the process or reviewing it. 

The same day as Magnuson’s letter, Giovanni Zanalda, director of the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, was informed that the CMES had received a grant for the 2019-20 academic year, according to an email he sent Sept. 23 obtained by The Chronicle.

In his Sept. 23 email, Zanalda wrote that “at this point all your centers/consortia have received notification of Continuation Awards for 2019-20,” addressing the email to the directors of the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Center for Slavic Eurasian and East European Studies and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center.

“This is just to let you know that the Director of the Duke-UNC CMES (based at UNC) informed us last Friday that ‘a continuation award has been made’ for the consortium’s NRC [national resource center] grant – in other words the GAN [grant adjustment notice] for 2019-20 has been posted in G5 [the Department of Education’s grant management system],” Zanalda wrote.

He wrote in an email to The Chronicle that UNC would have “the specifics of the grant,” as the Consortium is “managed by UNC, which also administers the Title VI Area Studies grant from the Department of Education.”

Another email obtained by The Chronicle confirmed that the 2019-20 funding was dispersed to the CMES. Eve Duffy, associate vice provost for global affairs, wrote in an email to Title VI center directors at Duke on Sept. 24 that the Consortium had gotten funded for 2019-20.

“By now you may have heard of the DOE letter regarding the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies,” Duffy wrote. “UNC responded to the request last week. That letter is now public as part of a public records request made by the News and Observer. Please share the letter with your faculty who may have concerns about the letter from the DOE.”

Duffy did not respond to multiple requests to comment.

After The Chronicle contacted UNC affiliates—Carl Ernst, UNC campus director of the Consortium, Director of the Consortium Charles Kurzman and Magnuson—for comment to this article, UNC media relations attached “the [Sept. 20] letter UNC-Chapel Hill sent” in a Sept. 24 email to The Chronicle.

The Department of Education did not respond to requests to comment on the status of the Consortium’s funding for this year. UNC media relations declined to comment on the Department’s dispersal of funds. 

Duke and UNC respond

Magnuson formally responded to the Department of Education’s letter Sept. 20.

“The Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program,” Magnuson wrote. “In keeping with the spirit of this partnership, the Consortium is committed to working with the Department to provide more information about our programs.”

Absent from the letter, however, are changes to the Consortium’s curriculum or programming.

“Your letter identifies two activities that you consider to be inappropriate for Title VI funding, out of more than 100 programs that the Consortium organizes or promotes each year,” Magnuson wrote. “Neither of these activities, as it happens, were supported with Title VI funding.”

To the Department’s complaint that the CMES emphasizes the “positive aspects of Islam” without a similar appreciation for other religions, Magnuson countered that “positive appreciation for Christianity, Judaism and other religions of the Middle East suffuses all of the Consortium’s K-12 outreach activities.”

Magnuson also disputed the Department’s criticism of the CMES’ language teaching, noting that Duke ranks highly nationally across several languages. In addition to having the highest Urdu language course enrollment in the United States, the CMES ranks 8th in both Arabic and Turkish. 

Magnuson pointed to “dozens of educational programs each year related to security and economic issues in the Middle East,” related to the allegation that the Consortium does not sufficiently advance national security interests. He listed several events planned for Fall 2019 that directly address national security.

Ellen McLarney, Duke campus director of the Consortium and associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, also addressed the Department of Education’s criticism about non-regular rank faculty teaching language courses. 

“[The letter] said that these courses are not being taught by regular rank faculty, which means tenure track teachers, but the policy across universities in the United States generally is that language courses are usually not taught by tenure track faculty,” McLarney said. 

She also noted that many of those classes are taught by instructors with graduate and doctoral degrees. Specifically, she mentioned that faculty with doctorates teach Persian, Turkish and Arabic.

President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth wrote an email to Duke faculty Thursday reaffirming Duke’s commitment to academic freedom

The letter affirmed that the University would “abide by the applicable legal guidelines” for federal grants, though it did not specifically address the concerns laid out by the Department of Education. The message also noted that UNC’s formal response to the Department of Education speaks on behalf of Duke as well.

A student involved in the CMES disputed the Department of Education’s characterization of the program. Junior Omar Benallal has taken multiple Arabic classes, including those at the graduate level. 

“I am very involved in the AMES department and in the classes that are a part of the Consortium of Middle East Studies,” Benallal said.

He currently serves as a teaching assistant for intermediate and advanced Arabic classes and has been involved with course administration and teaching in aspects of Middle East studies and Arabic language instruction.

“The letter struck a chord with me by taking classes and by being able to have open discussion on topics as facilitated by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies,” Benallal said. “At least I saw a stark difference in what I experienced in what the Department of Education was purporting.”

What the CMES does with its funds

The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is a language and Middle East studies center funded by Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 and jointly run by Duke and UNC.

While the CMES program has various funding sources, it is partially backed by Title VI funds that support universities which operate international studies and foreign language programs.

“CMES is a Duke-UNC Center created by Title VI funds. Duke’s Middle East Studies Center and UNC’s Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies have other streams of funding as well mainly from the University,” McLarney wrote in an email. “Both Centers also operate separately but together through CMES.”

The CMES is a national resource center (NRC), a Higher Education Act term for programs that serve four purposes: teaching foreign languages, providing additional instruction necessary for comprehensive understanding of the places where taught languages are spoken, reviewing international studies and how they relate to foreign languages and educating on global issues.

Department of Education online files list the four-year Title VI grants for national resource centers by world area. According to those listed for fiscal years 2018 to 2021, the center affiliated with Duke and UNC within the region of the Middle East would receive $235,000 in NRC funding per year. Another center also affiliated with Duke and UNC but within the region of Latin America is denoted to receive $224,000 in NRC funding and $372,000 in Foreign Language and Area Studies funding.

According to a Duke website, Erdag Göknar, associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle East studies and former Duke campus director of the Consortium, and McLarney were the principal investigators for the August 15, 2018 to August 14, 2019 Title VI NRC grant. Göknar was the principal investigator for the August 15, 2014 to August 14, 2018 grant.

Göknar did not respond to multiple requests to comment from The Chronicle.

McLarney, who is also the director of Duke’s Middle East Studies Center and interim director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, said the Consortium’s “main mission is educating students in the language, culture and politics of the region,” and faculty in the Consortium can pursue that aim through scholarship and teaching.

Title VI funding allows the Consortium to “develop those programs partially, the language program, all the conferences, like talks,” she said. She believes Magnuson’s letter demonstrates how the Consortium is “very pluralistic in ideology and politics in terms of our programming,” and that it “really [seeks] to promote dialogue across ideological lines as a way to model resolution partially through dialogue.”

Students involved in the CMES can take interdisciplinary courses at both Duke and UNC. The courses are cross-listed in various departments and programs, including Jewish studies, political science, public policy, history, anthropology and religious studies, McLarney added.

The CMES also offers a certificate for graduate students. McLarney explained that those pursuing the certificate alternate between attending classes at UNC and Duke each week because the courses are co-taught by a faculty member at each institution.

When it comes to future conferences, an annual graduate student conference is already in the works.

On Sept. 25, the Islamicate Graduate Student Association at UNC announced on Facebook that its “17th Annual Duke-UNC Conference” will be held Feb. 29, 2020 in Chapel Hill. The conference is entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?: Approaches to Authority within the Academy and Beyond.” 

“In light of recent attempts at intimidation by the state, we are particularly interested in thinking through the politics of power,” the post reads. “As such, we are seeking papers that interrogate questions of authority and power.” 

The Consortium lists 16 past Islamic studies annual conferences hosted by Duke and UNC graduate students. Past graduate conferences are listed in the Consortium’s archived events page and are listed as sponsored by the Consortium.

An ‘unprecedented’ letter

The Consortium made national headlines earlier this year when it held a conference entitled “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” that was alleged to have included anti-Semitic content. Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate misuse of Title VI grant funding in April 2019. 

According to The News & Observer, the Consortium’s four-year Title VI grant provided $5,000 in funding for the event, though UNC said that it used less than $200 of the allocated money. DeVos launched an investigation into the CMES, according to a June 18, 2019 letter from DeVos to Holding, obtained by The News & Observer.

At the time of the conference, Göknar was Duke campus director of the Consortium. When his tenure ended on July 1, 2019, McLarney assumed the position as director, she told The Chronicle.

In the Aug. 29 letter to the CMES, Robert King, assistant secretary of the Department of Education, wrote that most of the CMES’ activities that received Title VI funding were unauthorized, and that it was possible that the Consortium would no longer be an “eligible national resource center.”

He then outlined concerns regarding various aspects of the Consortium’s courses and programming. These included the involvement of STEM students obtaining “foreign language fluency;” not enough programs on “religious minorities in the Middle East;” grade school activities on the “positive aspects of Islam” but not the same for other Middle East religions; a lack of “emphasis” on the “geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs;” and other issues with Title VI compliance, he explained.

“The Department believes the Duke-UNC CMES has failed to carefully distinguish between activities lawfully funded under Title VI, and other activities, perhaps consistent with and protected by general principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support,” King wrote.

This type of letter is “unprecedented,” according to McLarney.

“No one has seen something like this in this field,” McLarney said. “Nor has this kind of letter been put on the Federal Register, which is basically making it public.”

Omid Safi, Trinity ‘92, Graduate School ‘00 and professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that he would refer to a Sept. 25 letter to the Department of Education from the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America expressing concern over the Department’s action. 

The letter, co-signed by 19 other academic professional organizations, asserts that the Department of Education’s action “constitutes an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.”

The letter also argues that “tying funding to considerations that have little to do with developing and supporting area studies of the highest quality, will undermine the mission of Title VI.” 

The ACLU also wrote a letter demanding DeVos cease her investigation into the Consortium. In its letter, the ACLU mentions “the Trump administration is threatening to pull federal funding” from the Consortium and alleges that the administration has a “deep-seated anti-Muslim bias.”

Jeremy Tang contributed reporting.

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