Issue 93, Spring 2004

A Congressional effort to impose oversight power over some academic programs has passed in the House of Representatives and is being considered by a Senate committee. At issue are area studies programs which the federal government has funded to increase understanding of foreign cultures, languages and politics, and to overcome a shortage of translators and specialists in international affairs. HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003, intended to fund studies of strategic importance to the U.S., particularly targets Middle Eastern studies programs. It would establish an advisory board to oversee these programs, ostensibly to make sure that they are not “biased.”

Universities nationwide have expanded their area studies programs, recruiting more Middle Eastern experts in response to student interest and escalating enrollments. As these programs became more visible, they reached the radar screens of critics who scrutinize higher education for what they consider anti-American bias. Testifying before a Congressional committee, Stanley Kurtz, of the Hoover Institution, claimed that the programs “tend to purvey extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy” and “discourage students from working for the government,” and urged Congress to create an advisory board to oversee the work of the grant recipients. Kurtz and others have particularly targeted the eminent mid-east scholar, the late Edward Said, whose writings are critical of American policies.

NCAC, the American Association of University Professors, and others, have raised the alarm about the potential of this section (633) of the legislation to “suppress certain views, chill dissent, and restrict academic discourse.” In a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the groups wrote:

“By granting the advisory board the authority to “monitor,” “evaluate,” and “make recommendations,” the legislation creates a real risk that academic programs funded by the federal government will become, or be perceived as, politically driven. This concern is heightened by the fact that all members of the advisory board are appointed by politicians.

“…At the point at which colleges and universities cannot teach about politically sensitive issues without Congressional oversight, we will have abandoned our commitment to freedom of speech, thought, and inquiry.”

For the full text, click here.