newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Department of Ed: Duke-UNC Mideast Studies has ‘little or no relevance’ to grant program

The event “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities” reportedly used $5,000 of federal taxpayer funds from the U.S. Education Department.

The "Old Well" at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Credit: Caroline Culler via Wikimedia Commons.
The "Old Well" at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Credit: Caroline Culler via Wikimedia Commons.

The U.S. Department of Education deemed that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies misused federal funding in hosting an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel conference in March.

A letter from U.S. Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King states that the consortium has “little or no relevance to Title VI” under  the Higher Education Act of 1965 that deals with higher education.

“Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities” reportedly used $5,000 of taxpayer funds from the U.S. Education Department.

“Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern 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,” stated King.

The letter contends that “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 Duke-UNC CMES.”

It also found that “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.”

The Education Department directed Duke-UNC CEMS to send by Sept. 22 a schedule of proposed activities and a list of classes, and to specify how they will increase full-time faculty teaching language classes in order to receive funding for next year.

‘Faculty push their own personal anti-Israel agendas’

StandWithUs condoned the letter.

“We are pleased that the Department of Education has concluded its investigation of complaints about anti-Semitic activities and political indoctrination at the Duke-UNC CMES Gaza program,” Yael Lerman, the director of SWU’s   Saidoff Legal Department, told JNS. “We commend the department for its thorough, serious investigation and for demanding corrective action that requires the school to educate, rather than indoctrinate, students.”

AMCHA Initiative co-founder and director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS that the Duke-UNC episode exemplified a bigger program.

“The number of faculty abusing their positions to push their own personal anti-Israel agendas on students is deeply alarming,” she said. “Last year, incidents where faculty or academic departments promoted or attempted to implement academic BDS nearly quadrupled.”

“Some of the worst offenders are recipients of millions in Title VI funding—taxpayer dollars intended to equip university students and faculty with a full and unbiased understanding of regions and countries vital to U.S. security,” she continued. “Instead, many of these faculty are using taxpayer dollars to host highly politicized outreach programs that attack Israel and even promote BDS, behavior that thwarts the very purpose of their federal funding, and leads to anti-Jewish hostility and harassment on campus. This is exactly what happened at UNC.”

“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 Duke-UNC CMES.”

The department investigation of the conference was spurred Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.), who sent U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a letter in April.

In it, the congressman, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, lists eight questions for the secretary, including what policies her department has to make sure no taxpayer funds go towards anti-Israel groups and if, in her opinion, the event presented “an overtly biased characterization of the situation in the Middle East.”

“Honest academic debate featuring diverse perspectives and a wide range of views is critical in a democratic society and a central tenet of American’s educational system,” wrote Holding. “However, it is irresponsible, immoral and unproductive for taxpayer dollars to fund overtly biased advocacy under the guise of academic discourse.”

In a letter in June, DeVos responded, “Institutions of higher education that receive Federal funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA), are required to use those funds in accordance with the terms and conditions of the grant and the HEA, and Department regulations. This includes a requirement under section 602 (e)(1) of the HEA that grantees must use funds to support activities that reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views, and generate debate on world regions and international affairs.”

“It is critical that recipients of grants use funds in accordance with statutory and regulatory requirements, as well as for purposes of the program for which they are funded,” she added.

“The Department of Education’s findings paint a deeply troubling picture. The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies’ repeated use of taxpayer funds to promote a biased, ideologically driven agenda is irresponsible and immoral,” Holding told JNS on Wednesday. “I appreciate the Department of Education’s diligence in examining this matter, and am thankful they are taking the necessary steps to ensure taxpayer dollars are used appropriately and responsibly in the future.”

A video from the event shows the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar beginning his performance by telling the audience, “I cannot be anti-Semitic alone,” and proceeded to sing “Don’t think of Rihanna when you sing this, don’t think of Beyoncé—think of Mel Gibson. I’m in love with a Jew/Oh/I fell in love with a Jew/Oh/Her skin is white and my skin is brown, she was going up up and I was going down.”

The video was taken by filmmaker and activist Ami Horowitz, who also shared audio of anti-Semitic exchanges while visiting the campus. His video has since been deleted by YouTube, citing it violated the company’s terms of service.

UNC told ABC11 that Horowitz’s footage “was heavily edited, and the product as presented does not provide context as to the questions and the full, complete answers given. Moreover, we do not believe this video represents the spirit of scholarship at the event.”

The school continued:

The conference brought together internationally recognized scholars and professionals from NGOs, think tanks and academia to address a range of topics about Gaza from different viewpoints. The sponsors supported the event as an educational opportunity, and this video misconstrued the breadth of discourse that took place during the panels.


Our University is united by students, faculty, and staff from more than one hundred countries and represented by a diverse range of perspectives, traditions, and faiths. Diversity is an intrinsically vital part of shaping dialogue that can address complex issues, and we uphold a commitment to fostering a welcoming environment to people from all backgrounds.


Conferences such as this are organized by scholars who have academic freedom to develop the programming and invite their selected speakers and performers. UNC Global supports faculty in hosting these conferences without endorsing the beliefs of speakers or performers.

In response to ABC11 sending UNC the raw and unedited footage, Duke University president Vincent Price and provost Sally Kornbluth said:

“We want to be very clear: anti-Semitism is one of the great scourges of modern life. Its resurgence, as demonstrated by the worldwide increase in hate crimes and incidents, is deeply troubling and should be of great concern to any civil society.


Whether it occurs on our campus, in our community, through graffiti, rallies or concerts, in conference rooms or courtrooms, we must all speak out forcefully against actions and statements that target and threaten members of our Jewish community.


On our campus and beyond, the lines of politics, trust, activism and civility cannot become so blurred that we lose our commitment to mutual respect. We must guard against the danger that our passions obscure our common humanity, and we must remind ourselves that what injures any one of us injures us all.”

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