The Trump administration is threatening to cut funding to a joint University of North Carolina and Duke University Middle East studies program, claiming that the program is misusing its federal grant money to promote the, “positive aspects of Islam,” but not Christianity or Judaism.
The Trump administration directed the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to amend its courses by Sept. 22 or lose funding. The funding, which comes from a grant awarded to universities to support foreign language instruction, is also received by Columbia, Georgetown, Yale and the University of Texas for similar programs.
The Department of Education, headed by Secretary Betsy DeVos, ordered an investigation into the program in June, following a complaint from North Carolina Republican Rep. George Holding. Holding claims that that a conference hosted by the joint program presented a, “severe anti-Israeli bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric,” as written in a letter quoted by NBC News.
The department’s inquiry did not address any bias against Israel, but evaluated whether the conference’s proposed activities aligned with the goals of the National Resource Center program. The National Resource Center program distributes the grant money received by UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke and was created in 1965 to support language and culture initiatives in order to prepare students for diplomacy and national security careers.
The department found that foreign language and cultural initiatives have, “taken a back seat to other priorities,” as NBC News reported.
The department also said in a letter that the conference failed to provide balanced perspectives on religion, and that emphasis was 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 [Center for Middle East Studies] 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,” the letter stated.
The letter also accused the program of offering few courses on discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, “including Christains, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze and others.”
The University of North Carolina disputes the Trump administration’s claims of bias.
Jay Smith, a history professor at UNC, said the letter was essentially, “ideological driven harassment,” as he was quoted in NBC News. He continued by saying that Robert King, the Education Department official who signed the letter, “should stay in his lane and allow the experts to determine what constitutes a ‘full understanding’ in the Middle East.”
In their response, UNC Chapel Hill said that their Consortium for Middle East Studies provides “positive appreciation” of Christianity and Judaism and assists with programs that consider persecution faced by religious minorities.
“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,” the response to the Department of Education says.