OpinionMiddle East

The black box: How Arizona’s response to a congressional letter is proof of the problem

Universities are so used to simply spending federal dollars on whatever they want, they feel no need to pay attention to how they do it.

Cliff Smith
Cliff Smith
Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. You can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Those concerned with the state of Middle East studies have a litany of common complaints: politicized professors that teach fringe academic theories, rampant anti-Semitism masking as criticism of Israel, instant capitulation to political correctness concerning radical Islam and so on. One aspect that is less often discussed is the total lack of transparency into how Middle East studies is financed.

Take the recent case of the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle East Studies (CMES).

In late February, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) sent a letter to the Department of Education and CMES, concerned that funds concerning Title VI of the Higher Education Act (HEA) were going to “support biased, anti-American, pro-BDS faculty and research.” This, he rightly claimed, would be a violation of the purpose, and even the letter, of the law concerning Title VI funds. Title VI funds are intended to “develop a pool of international experts to meet national needs,” in the field of “international studies and world languages,” and must “reflect diverse perspective and a wide range of views.”

Gosar listed a number of issues, among which are professors openly supporting the BDS movement. The law requires Title VI centers to “promote access to research and training overseas, including through linkages with overseas institutions,” which would be directly counter to the principles of BDS. Other professors have taken actions that also raise eyebrows, such as supporting the brazenly anti-Semitic Students for Justice in Palestine. These actions, he notes, are allowed under the First Amendment, but ought not be paid for by taxpayer funds and are not in accordance with the purpose of Title VI. Furthermore, Gosar notes that CMES has received significant funds from places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Given that Title VI is intended to improve American national security, this dynamic creates a conflict of interest.

A month later, UA responded to Gosar’s letter. Rather than taking this issue with the seriousness it deserves, however, the letter obfuscates more than it enlightens.

Specifically, two professors at Arizona, Maha Nassar and Linda Darling, were mentioned in Gosar’s letter. They openly support BDS and have written in defense of those that have called for the destruction of Israel. Rather than take this issue head on, UA claims that Nassar and Darling are “not employees” of CMES, and do not receive Title VI funds.

UA’s own website shows this to be a dodge. While it is true that Nassar and Darling are primarily appointed to their professorships in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies (MENAS), the University’s website indicates that MENAS faculty are also CMES Affiliated Faculty, explaining that CMES Affiliated Faculty include “current and retired UA faculty members who are in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.” Indeed, both Nassar and Darling are specifically listed as affiliated faculty of CMES. Thus, claiming Nassar and Darling are “not employees,” of CMES is untrue, given any normal understanding of the term.

Second, even putting aside the fact that they are affiliated faculty of CMES, claiming that they receive no Title VI funds as MENAS faculty is false given any normal meaning of the term. CMES brags of receiving Title VI funds on its website. MENAS may not be directly funded by Title VI, but on MENAS’s website, it notes that it “receives support from (CMES), which is one of 14 Middle East centers nationally to receive (Title VI) funding.” Claiming that faculty that are affiliated with two programs, one that receives Title VI funds, and one that openly brags about receiving money from the organization that receives Title VI funds, are not in fact funded by Title VI, is, at best, an obfuscation. In colloquial terms, it might be called a lie.

If it wasn’t a lie, it is only because universities are so used to simply spending federal dollars on whatever they want, they feel no need to pay attention to how they do it. When Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) raised similar concerns about Duke-UNC’s Consortium on Middle East Studies, an ensuing investigation found that “most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized.”

Put more pointedly, the Department of Education explained that “although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modem Iran’… 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.” Rep. Holding later called the Department of Education’s findings “deeply troubling,” and said that the “use of federal taxpayer funds to promote a biased, ideologically driven agenda is irresponsible and immoral.”

Indeed, Gosar’s letter was sparked by how little transparency there is into how Title VI dollars are spent. The University of Arizona’s obfuscation is an example of, rather than a solution to, the issue Gosar raised.

Another point of Gosar’s letter was to highlight the conflict of interests that arises when Title VI funds, for the benefit of U.S. national security, are intermingled with foreign funds. The university responded that there were never any conditions of any sort on any “material amount” of foreign gifts, and furthermore, that money from Qatar was spent simply on “student scholarships and poetry books.” According to a report by the Clarion Project, the CMES center received $1.65 million from Qatar since 2012.

Even assuming that the lion’s share of that went to student scholarships, that’s a lot of poetry books.

This doesn’t even get into another issue: previous reports that have suggested Qatari-funded curriculum was highly slanted against Israel and whitewashes radicalism—not something taxpayers should pay for. Are these books similar? UA doesn’t say which books were purchased. UA’s response also did not address the $5.3 million it received from Saudi Arabia.

The entire episode demonstrates that the academy refuses to recognize the problem. The response to the Duke-UNC kerfuffle was harsh criticisms of the Trump administration’s Department of Education, and now, in response to Gosar’s letter, obfuscation to the point of falsehood.

Universities want federal money, just not federal mandates, which they believe threatens academic freedom. But as libertarian-leaning Professor David Bernstein of George Mason University Law School said last year when discussing Title VI funding, “Universities should not accept money with such strings, especially when the money is not, as it is not in the Mideast Studies funding context, remotely crucial to their fiscal stability. But if they do accept federal money with such strings, they … can hardly object that their academic freedom is being denied.”

Perhaps the solution to this would be in embracing Trump administration’s attempt to eliminate Title VI funding altogether. No more strings.

Or just stop one-sided teaching and terror apologetics.

Your move, academy.

Cliff Smith is director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. You can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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