The Title VI program operated by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) provides funding to American colleges and universities for the promotion of language learning and area studies. Earlier this year, ED informed Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that it was investigating their use of Title VI resources at the joint Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies. In late August, the Federal Register published a letter from ED detailing the programming that it claimed Title VI funds should not have supported, which included a conference on Middle Eastern film and a concert series “focused on Islam, music, and social change.” ED argued that Title VI grants are intended to advance American security interests via the intensive study of foreign languages and subjects directly related to geopolitics, rather than a broader array of topics focusing on cultural understanding. The letter also expressed concern that the consortium’s programming “appears to lack balance” in its treatment of religious groups.
The Association for Asian Studies, after discussion and vote by the Board of Directors, has joined 18 other scholarly associations in co-signing a letter to ED expressing concern about the department’s interpretation of the scope and purpose of area studies education. The letter appears below, as well as on the website of the Middle East Studies Association, which took the lead in composing it.
Robert L. King
Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education
U.S. Department of Education
LBJ Building, 400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.
Washington, DC 20202
Attn: Patrick Shaheen
U.S. Department of Education, Office of the General Counsel
400 Maryland Ave. SW, room 6E300
Washington, DC 20202
Dear Mr. King,
We, the official representatives of the undersigned American academic associations, read your letter of 29 August 2019, addressed to Dr. Terry Magnuson, Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of North Carolina and subsequently published in the Federal Register, with considerable concern and surprise. The allegation contained in that letter that “most” of the activities of the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, a Title VI National Resource Center, are “unauthorized” under Title VI funding, appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how expertise in foreign languages, cultural competencies, and area and international knowledge in general is obtained. The letter also constitutes an unprecedented and counterproductive intervention into academic curricula and programming that threatens the integrity and autonomy of our country’s institutions of higher education.
Title VI of the Higher Education Act recognized that “the security, stability and economic vitality of the United States” depended upon “American experts in and citizens knowledgeable about world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs…” and that the best way to meet this need was to support centers, programs, and fellowships in institutions of higher education that could teach modern languages and offer instruction “in fields needed to provide full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which such language is commonly used” (20 U.S.C. 1122 (a) 1 (B)). Title VI grants are made through a highly competitive process to academic institutions that have demonstrated that they have the faculty and the administrators to design and run courses and programs to meet the stated goals of Title VI grants, namely to teach students the languages as well as the political, historical, and cultural knowledge they need for this full understanding. NRC Centers are staffed by top specialists who have spent many years learning, researching, and teaching about their respective regions. They have a well-honed grasp of how to design courses and activities that impart their regional expertise to others. Your letter, in tone and content, suggests an intention not only to significantly narrow the scope of Title VI activities, but also to micromanage them. It is unclear why these changes are being demanded and which experts, if any, in the field of international studies have been consulted.
International studies in the United States is a real success story: Title VI centers have provided this country with several generations of regional experts and have led the way in regional studies nationally and globally. The education and training provided by academic programs supported by Title VI have consistently linked language training to international education in a range of disciplines that enable students to attain the depth and breadth of knowledge they need to become regional experts. These experts have gone on to use their skills and knowledge in a variety of sectors — government, private, academic and non-profit — fully in accord with the goals of Title VI to meet national needs for regional expertise across the board. We are very concerned that the approach outlined in your letter, tying funding to considerations that have little to do with developing and supporting area studies of the highest quality, will undermine the mission of Title VI, and set back the cause of international studies in this country.
African Studies Association
American Academy of Religion
American Anthropological Association
American Historical Association
American Sociological Association
American Studies Association
Association for Asian Studies
Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
Central Eurasian Studies Society
Joint National Committee for Languages
Latin American Studies Association
Middle East Studies Association
Modern Language Association
National Communication Association
National Council for Languages and International Studies
Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study
Society of Architectural Historians
Society of Biblical Literature
World History Association