Wicked Local Misleads Readers on the Misuse of Federal Funds by Duke University’s Middle East Program

On October 12, 2019 Wicked Local, an Internet-based newspaper chain, published an editorial claiming the U.S. Department of Education’s threat to withhold funding to Duke University’s Middle East Studies program is driven by anti-Islam sentiment and the Trump administration’s determination to shield Israel from criticism. The editorial grossly distorted the contents of the 1,880-word Department of Education letter to Duke University. The letter, which is available on-line, does not even mention Israel or the Palestinians, nor does it contain any statement denigrating Islam.

The letter informs Duke University that its program failed to meet clearly spelled out eligibility requirements to receive federal funds under Title VI.

The Wicked Local editorial states,

At one program, however, professors are seeking to enlighten  students about the various aspects of Islam. In the process, they have  become a lightning rod for right-wing wrath, and the U.S. Department of  Education is threatening to revoke federal funding unless a less positive view of the faith is shared with students.

This is a distortion of the Department of Education’s words. The relevant portion of the U.S. Department of Education letter says the following:

The Duke-UNC CMES appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others.
Also, in your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the 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.

The letter admonishes Duke for failing to note the positive aspects of other major religions and for failing to disclose discrimination against religious minorities. The Wicked Local editorial twists this message around by claiming that the demand for balance in presenting positive aspects of other religions and the insistence on courses on that inform students of the historic realities of discrimination experienced by minorities in the Middle East represents an attack on Islam by right-wingers.

But the editorial’s dishonest account of the letter goes further. The section of the letter on which Wicked Local chose to focus, is only a small part of the entire letter. The main portion of the letter details Duke’s failure to enroll students in the language courses, a requirement for Title VI funding and gives examples of courses that are misuse of taxpayer funds.

This requirement for Title VI funds is clearly stated in the second paragraph:

Federal funding is conditioned on a demonstration that a given center or program is a ‘‘national resource’’ for teaching of any modem foreign language; for instruction in fields needed to provide full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which such language is commonly used; for    research and training in the international and foreign language aspects of professional and other fields of study; and for instruction and research on issues in world affairs that concern one or more countries. 20 U.S.C.   1122(a)(l)(B). It is unlawful for institutions of higher education to use Title VI funds differently. (emphasis added)

Wicked Local’s editorial only briefly mentions this central component of the Department of Education letter. Instead, the editorial veers off into a tangential issue in order to attack its intended target, Israel.

Wicked Local Conceals the Anti-Jewish Hatefest at Duke University

Citing a letter from a North Carolina congressman expressing concern about the anti-Israel activity of the Duke program, the editorial contends, “In recent years, there has been an almost instinctive knee-jerk reaction among some to wrongly equate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitic hate speech…”

It then continues, “The Trump administration has regularly conflated the two in an attempt to curry favor with those who support the Israeli state. In fact, this past summer, DeVos voiced concerns about student-led efforts on college campuses to boycott Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, going so far as to call it a “pernicious threat.”

It is revealing that the editorial praises the Duke program in the wake of several partisan events Duke hosted this year. The Duke Middle East Studies program has long been a hotbed of anti-Israel agitation. But in March 2019, it outdid itself, sponsoring a conference, “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” that turned into an open hatefest against Jews.

The conference featured the usual denunciations of Israel and one-sided portrayals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, blaming Israel while giving the terror group Hamas a pass. But there was more, including explicit calls by invited participants to express their anti-Semitism. A Palestinian rapper asked the audience for support stating, “I can’t be anti-semitic alone” and praised the crowd for looking “beautifully anti-Semitic.”

Two weeks later, Duke hosted Linda Sarsour, who has come under scrutiny for her anti-Israel activism and apologetics for radical Islam.

It was this continuing roster of events attacking Israel and Jews that prompted North Carolina Congressman George Holding to call for a probe of “the severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Wicked Local omits all this context and instead presents Holding’s expression of legitimate concern as meddling.

Wicked Local is a subsidiary of GateHouse Media, “one of the largest publishers of locally-based media in the United States.” According to its website, GateHouse Media publishes “154 daily newspapers, 579 community publications” which it claims reach “21 million people each week.”

This is not the first time that a newspaper owned by this conglomerate has evidenced a bias against Israel. The Wicked Local editorial reflects at minimum an insensitivity toward the concerns of the Jewish community. It openly sides with those who smear Israel and who conceal the dire situation of religious minorities in the Middle East.


The following is the Wicked Local editorial that appeared in local papers on October 12, 2019:

Islam is one of the world’s three most-practiced religions, with approximately 1.6 billion people across the planet identifying themselves as members of the faith. But in many Western nations, understanding of its belief structure is woefully inadequate.

At one program, however, professors are seeking to enlighten students about the various aspects of Islam. In the process, they have become a lightning rod for right-wing wrath, and the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to revoke federal funding unless a less positive view of the faith is shared with students.

In a letter dated Aug. 29 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the Department of Education put the schools on notice that it would eliminate federal funding for a Middle East studies program because classes were promoting “the positive aspects of Islam” while failing to do so in classes that focused on the Jewish and Christian faiths. The program is one of about a dozen similar efforts across the country that receive federal funds. There are no reports of any other schools facing such a warning.

The Department of Education scrutiny was prompted by a complaint by North Carolina Republican Congressman George Holding, who in a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, wrote that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund a conference focusing on Gaza that included “severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

In recent years, there has been an almost instinctive knee-jerk reaction among some to wrongly equate criticism of the Israeli government with anti-Semitic hate speech – one is directed at a country and its policies, the other against a people because of their religious affiliation. The Trump administration has regularly conflated the two in an attempt to curry favor with those who support the Israeli state. In fact, this past summer, DeVos voiced concerns about student-led efforts on college campuses to boycott Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians, going so far as to call it a “pernicious threat.”

Officially, the Department of Education argues that the $235,000 grant awarded to the UNC-Duke program was intended to support foreign language and national security courses, and that some of the courses in the program do not line up with the intention of the funds.

If the letter had stopped there, the government may have had a legitimate case. After all, schools receiving most grant money must comply with the intent of those who issue the funds. But in this case, the Department of Education went on to accuse the schools of failing to offer a “balance of perspectives” and that there was too much emphasis on “understanding the positive aspect 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.”

So if painting an accurate picture of Islam, including its many contributions to world culture, seems like it is somehow “promoting” the faith, it is perhaps only because Muslims in general have borne the burden of being associated with some violent extremists. If the same approach were taken with the relatively small percentage of horrible people who have followed the Christian faith, would we vilify that religion as well?

https://watertown.wickedlocal.com/opinion/20191012/our-view-learning-lesson-from-teaching-of-islam

 

The following is the Department of Education letter notifying Duke that its Title VI funding is under review. https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/09/17/2019-20067/notice-of-a-letter-regarding-the-duke-unc-consortium-for-middle-east-studies

Appendix A—Letter to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill August 29, 2019 Terry Magnuson, Ph.D. Vice Chancellor for Research The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research 312 South Building, Campus Box 4000 Chapel Hill, NC 27599–4000 Dear Dr. Magnuson: Thank you for your letter of June 20, 2019, responding to the U.S. Department of Education’s questions about the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies (‘‘Duke- UNC CMES’’).

As you are aware, in Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, Congress authorizes grants to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States by teaching American students the foreign languages and cultural competencies required to develop a pool of experts to meet our national needs. 20 U.S.C. 1021. The Secretary of Education may make Title VI grants to institutions of higher education or consortia of such institutions only for the purposes of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs, and of establishing, strengthening, and operating a diverse network of undergraduate foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs. 20 U.S.C. 11 22(a)(l)(A).

Federal funding is conditioned on a demonstration that a given center or program is a ‘‘national resource’’ for teaching of any modem foreign language; for instruction in fields needed to provide full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which such language is commonly used; for research and training in the international and foreign language aspects of professional and other fields of study; and for instruction and research on issues in world affairs that concern one or more countries. 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(l)(B). It is unlawful for institutions of higher education to use Title VI funds differently.

After reviewing your letter, the Annual Project Reports (‘‘APR’’) submitted by the Duke-UNC CMES during the most recent and prior award periods, and your 2018 National Resource Center proposal, the Department is concerned that most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized and that Duke-UNC CMES may not qualify as an eligible National Resource Center. Among other things:

  • You report that 6,791 students were enrolled in taxpayer-funded Middle East studies course but that only 960 students were enrolled in Middle East language courses. It is unclear whether this means 960 different people participated in foreign language instruction or if the total headcount in foreign language courses was 960, meaning that some students could have been counted more than once because most of your programs require students to complete three to eight semesters of foreign language.

Similarly, you do not clarify how many of those students took three or more semesters of a given language or the level of language fluency they achieved.

  • Your application asserts collaborations with other academic departments. However, these departments are not, for the most part, aligned with the requirement that National Resource Centers help students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields achieve foreign language fluency. See 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(2)(J).
  • Many of the topics and titles listed under the area studies section of your prior APRs have little or no relevance to Title VI. For example, although Iranian art and film may be of 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. Although a conference focused on ‘‘Love and Desire in Modem 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. Similarly, the link between the statutory goals and the academic papers referenced in your grant proposal, Amihri Hatun: Performance, Gender-Bending and Subversion in the Early Modern Ottoman Intellectual History, or Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition, is patently unclear.

While the Duke-UNC CMES may certainly offer programs in Iranian art and film, these programs should not be funded or subsidized in any way by American taxpayers under Title VI unless you are able to clearly demonstrate that such programs are secondary to more rigorous coursework helping American students to become fluent Farsi speakers and to prepare for work in areas of national need.

  • The Duke-UNC CMES appears to lack balance as it offers very few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others. Also, in your activities for elementary and secondary students and teachers, there is a considerable emphasis placed on the 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 Centers ’’provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries’’ in which the modern foreign language taught is commonly used.

See 20 U.S.C. 1122(a)(l)(B)(ii) (emphasis added); 34 CFR 656.3(b)(1).

  • It appears from your APRs that the Duke- UNC CMES offers very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities. For example, the description of an activity described as a ‘‘conversation’’ with Dr. Rosemary Corbett is ‘‘Dr. Corbett traces the broader history of pressures placed on religious minorities in the last century to conform to dominant American frameworks for race, gender and political economy. These include the encouraging of community groups to provide social services to the dispossessed in compensation for the government’s lack of welfare provisions in an aggressively capitalist environment.’’

Another activity called ‘‘Music on the Porch’’ describes an outdoor concert series as an international program focused on Islam, music, and social change. The featured artist, Marco Pave, is described as a ‘‘millennial Muslim from Memphis,’’ who conducts workshops around the country on hip-hop and social justice, and he advocates greater support for the arts.’’ It is hard to understand how these things are consistent with a National Resource Center and lawfully supported by taxpayer funds to ensure the ‘‘security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States in a complex global era[.]’’ 20 U.S.C. 1121(a)(l).

  • The job placement results included in your grant proposal indicate that the Duke- UNC CEMS provides opportunities and support primarily for individuals to pursue academic careers rather than in government or business as Congress directs. That 35 percent of program graduates go to higher education positions and only 11 percent to government positions suggests that there are critical shortcomings and impermissible biases in the programming.
  • The teacher-training activities hosted by the Duke-UNC CMES lack lawful focus on language development and instead advance narrow, particularized views of American social issues. For example, a teacher training seminar included in a prior APR is described as having provided an opportunity for teachers to explore ‘‘issues of multicultural education and equity to build a culture and climate of respect in the classroom. Educators dove deeper during interactive break-out sessions focused on unconscious bias, safe classrooms for all, using film for global education, why culture matters and working across cultures, serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.’’ There is a startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language of the area, as Congress required in Title VI.

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

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48921 Federal Register /Vol. 84, No. 180/Tuesday, September 17, 2019/Notices

principles of academic freedom, that are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support. Furthermore, it seems clear foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘‘a back seat’’ to other priorities at the Duke- UNC CMES.

Notably, most of the instructors of foreign language courses are nontenure track lecturers or teaching assistants, whereas most of the instructors of other courses are tenured faculty.

Given the important role tenured faculty play in attracting students to foreign language instruction and majors and enabling students to overcome the difficulty of mastering a language, the lack of tenured foreign languages faculty relative to the number of tenured culture studies faculty, may signal a potentially serious misalignment between Title IV requirements and the Duke-UNC CMES’s orientation and activities.

The Department will hold the Duke-UNC CMES accountable for ensuring all Title VI funded or subsidized activities directly reflect express Congressional mandates and purposes. Therefore, as a condition for future Title VI funding, the Duke-UNC CMES is directed to provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.

For example, cultural studies providing historical information about customs and practices in the Middle East and assisting students to understand and navigate the culture of another country, in concert with rigorous foreign language training, could help develop a pool of experts needed to protect U.S. national security and economic stability and therefore may well be within Title VI’s ambit. 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.

Also, the Duke-UNC CMES is required to demonstrate that it has prioritized foreign language instruction as required by law. More equal utilization of comparably credentialed faculty in foreign language instruction might prove to be an appropriate measure in this regard.

The Duke-UNC CMES is further required 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.

Finally, the Duke-UNC CMES is further required to develop and implement effective institutional controls ensuring all future Title VI-funded activities directly promote foreign language learning and advance the national security interests and economic stability of the United States, thereby meeting statutory requirements and meriting taxpayer funding.

The Department must obligate the funds to continue support for the Duke-UNC CMES by no later than September 30, 2019. Consequently, it is critically important that you respond in writing to this letter with a preliminary plan and timetable for carrying

out the above-specified compliance activities on or before September 22, 2019.

Sincerely, Robert King Assistant Secretary

Cc: Charles Kurzman, Ph.D., Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kevin Guskiewicz, Interim Chancellor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Richard Stevens, Chair, University of North Carolina Board of Trustees Vincent E. Price, President, Duke University Jack 0. Bovender, Jr., Chair, Duke University Board of Trustees [FR Doc. 2019–20067 Filed 9–16–19; 8:45 am]