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Members of Congress press DeVos over Duke-UNC Islamic curriculum investigation

[1]
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Lawmakers criticize probe as “threat to academic freedom”

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) sent a letter [2] to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week outlining concerns and requesting documentation regarding the department’s investigation into the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies curriculum.

In August, the Department of Education (DOE) wrote a letter to UNC [3] requesting that it revise the program’s curriculum, saying it unfairly portrays “the positive aspects of Islam,” and has 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.”

The department gave the university until Sept. 22 to send a “revised schedule of activities” in order to continue receiving federal grant money through Title VI.

The National Resource Center [4] (NRC), a program through the DOE, provides grants to higher education institutions that support [4] international studies and foreign language programs.

Duke-UNC responded to the department’s letter and received its funding for 2019-20, despite the ongoing controversy around the grant. The Associated Press reported [5] the university received $235,000 from the grant last year.

But Levin and Davis say this investigation is bigger than this singular instance and is “a direct threat to academic freedom” for all higher education institutions in the country. [6]

“While we believe the Department has a serious responsibility to ensure that universities appropriately spend the taxpayer dollars it awards, such inquiries must not threaten academic freedom,” Levin and Davis wrote.  “The Department’s public investigation of the Duke-UNC Consortium will reverberate across American colleges and universities, perhaps causing all institutions to consider whether the federal government will investigate them because of curricula it dislikes.”

Levin is vice chair of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, and Davis serves chairs the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment.

In the letter to DeVos, Levin and Davis requested a number of documents pertaining to the department’s investigation into the program’s curriculum and grant spending.

[7]
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.)

They are particularly interested in grant documents, standard review procedures for NRC grants and all internal documents regarding specifically the Duke-UNC consortium review.

Levin and Davis requested the documents and answers to the questions outlined in the letter by Nov. 15.

The letter from Levin and Davis echoes many of the concerns previously expressed by national civil rights advocates and student activists in North Carolina.

In late September, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to DeVos [8] in which it expressed “deep concerns” with the Department of Education’s action in reviewing Title VI funding for the Duke-UNC Consortium. This is from the letter:

The apparent misinformation and inaccuracies in the Department’s letter are especially troubling because they strongly suggest that the Department’s action here is, in part at least, merely a pretext to retaliate against the Consortium after a federal legislator complained that he did not like a particular viewpoint, which he perceived as being anti-Israel, expressed at a conference held by the program.

Moreover, the letter’s concern that the Consortium is purportedly portraying the ‘positive aspects of Islam’ and ‘advancing ideological priorities’ likewise strongly suggests that the Department’s investigation is motivated by its displeasure with the messages conveyed by the program’s curriculum. It also raises concerns that the Department is injecting the current presidential administration’s long pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination into the Title VI funding process.”

The ACLU letter followed protests by student organizations at UNC. As Policy Watch reported at the time [9], Students for Justice in Palestine at UNC-Chapel Hill organized an event challenging the DOE action in collaboration with Take Action Chapel Hill and Defend UNC. This is from that September news story:

Take Action Chapel Hill & Defend UNC unequivocally condemn the recent attack on the Muslim community by the Trump-DeVos Department of Education and, of course, the consistent attacks by the Trump administration more broadly,” the groups said in a press statement this week.

“This attack on Muslim students at UNC (and Duke) in the wake of an Islamophobic mass shooting in Chapel Hill is tantamount to incitement,” the statement said. “This is a transparent attempt to pit groups under attack by the white supremacists both in White House and in our community against each other.”

The UNC Muslim Student Association released its own statement this week, as did UNC Students for Justice in Palestine.

“Your insistence upon the prioritization of “national security” over Islamic studies reveals a rejection of human understanding and appreciation for different beliefs and practices,” the UNC Muslim Student Association said in its statement. “The Duke-UNC Middle Eastern Studies Consortium is not your political tool. It is an acclaimed center for students and academics to study a part of the world that is too often demonized and misunderstood. This includes studying Islam in a way that is more complex than the black-and- white view promoted by mainstream media.”

DeVos is currently in a battle with the U.S. Education and Labor Committee after refusing to publicly testify this month about the department’s stall for tens of thousands of “borrower defense” claims [10]. U.S. House Education Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) threatened to subpoena DeVos by the end of the week if she doesn’t voluntarily appear to give her testimony.

Allison Donahue is a reporter for the Michigan Advance [11] which first published this story on November 4, and to which Rob Schofield and Joe Killian contributed.

The Department of Education was unavailable for comment by the original time of publication.