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How the Trump regime is cracking down on US academic freedom

The Department of Education has threatened the future of an academic consortium over its emphasis on 'the positive aspects of Islam'
Protestors rally against US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in New York on 1 May (AFP)

This past March, a conference entitled "Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities" brought together experts from Palestine and the US to discuss such timely topics as Gaza's economy, health conditions, humanitarian aid and more. The event, organised by the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies, also highlighted Gaza's culture: its film productions, music and food.  

The consortium has been hosting such annual conferences for years, with topics ranging from "ReOrienting the Veil" to "Arts of Revolution in the Middle East" to the Arab Spring. Yet, complaints that this year's conference was "antisemitic" quickly found their way to the office of North Carolina Republican Representative George Holding, who took it further with a letter to the US Department of Education, complaining that taxpayer funds were being misused to advance antisemitism.  

Diverse perspectives?

"Honest academic debate featuring diverse perspectives and a wide range of views is critical in a democratic society and a central tenet of America's educational system," Holding wrote to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. "However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy camouflaged as academic discourse."

The Department of Education determined that the complaint warranted an investigation, which it opened shortly afterwards. Last month, it informed the consortium that it found the conference problematic in many ways, including that it emphasised "the positive aspects of Islam". 

The Department of Education itself, rather than the consortium, is determined to impose its own ideological bias onto academic programmes

More seriously, the Department of Education investigated the consortium's record over many years, and threatened to withhold funding if its programmes failed to "advance the national security interests" of the US.

In its letter to the consortium, the department wrote that as a condition for future Title VI funding, it must "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 US national security and economic stability and therefore may well be within Title VI's ambit," the letter noted.

"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."

Witch hunt

This letter is deeply troubling, and academics and civil rights advocates have been quick to point out that it is reminiscent of the McCarthyist attacks on leftist academics at the height of the Cold War, with the witch hunt now targeting scholarship on Palestine and Islam generally. 

Additionally, it reveals that the Department of Education itself, rather than the consortium, is determined to impose its own ideological bias onto academic programmes. As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in a statement: "Title VI does not, and cannot, authorize the government to require federal funding recipients to de-emphasize the 'positive aspects of Islam' to the Department's satisfaction.

"The Department's assumption of such authority threatens core constitutional principles protecting freedom of speech and freedom of religion."

DeVos speaks during a summit on combatting antisemitism in Washington on 15 July (AFP)
DeVos speaks during a summit on combatting antisemitism in Washington on 15 July (AFP)

Concerned students at the UNC-Duke consortium published a response to DeVos' letter, noting: "This is the first time in a decade that the state has intervened to make an academic department more amenable to its politics. Title VI extortions in the mid-2000s attempted to force Middle East Studies programs to churn out tools for the state through programs that focused on linguistic skills, security frameworks, and hostility to the Middle East and Muslims during the War on Iraq. 

"These jingoistic, white supremacist currents are even stronger today, emboldening the Trump administration to crack down on freedom of speech, and our commitment to complex, nuanced educational programming."

Concerted national attack

Students and academics have also noted that the official criticism of the conference continues a decades-long concerted national attack on all teaching about Palestine, led by another Trump nominee, Kenneth Marcus, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education.  

Marcus is often referred to as an "anti-BDS crusader" who is "in effect weaponizing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in federal fund-assisted organizations, ie universities". In an earlier, co-authored article, I wrote that like other Trump appointees, "Marcus seeks to undermine the very rights he is charged with protecting".

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In addition to ongoing concerns over shutting down critical debate on Palestine, there is growing national alarm about the weaponising of Title VI, which was intended to protect civil rights. 

Many educational experts are pointing out that federal law states clearly that Title VI should not be construed "to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction". 

In other words, the government cannot dictate the content of any department's courses. This, however, is exactly what US President Donald Trump's appointees are doing, and it is a threat to all of academia. 

With the Department of Education determining that federal funding can be withdrawn from academic departments that do not further "national security," and with this administration's open Islamophobia and its concerted attacks on hard-won civil rights for the majority of Americans, the fear is that programmes that denounce homophobia, ableism in the medical profession, or law enforcement violence against African Americans - to name but a few - will also be starved of funding, so that only those schools that "please" this white supremacist administration can thrive. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nada Elia
Nada Elia is a Diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, currently working on her second book, Who You Callin' "Demographic Threat?" Notes from the Global Intifada. A professor of Gender and Global Studies (retired), and is a member of the Steering Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)