Jurisprudence

The Right’s Latest Attack on Academic Freedom Might Actually Work

Betsy DeVos’ criticism of a Middle East studies program follows a familiar playbook.

Betsy DeVos.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in Washington on July 15.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Trump administration has threatened to withdraw federal funding from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies because it does not portray Christianity or Judaism in a sufficiently “positive” light. A letter from the Department of Education—sent on Tuesday and reported by the New York Times on Thursday—directed the program to emphasize “positive aspects” of these and other non-Islamic religions in the Middle East. If it refuses, the department may strip the program of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Tuesday’s letter reflects the Department of Education’s efforts under Secretary Betsy DeVos to combat perceived bias against Israel on campuses. But what is startling about the agency’s threat is that it puts forth no evidence that the consortium depicts Judaism—or Christianity or any other religion—negatively. Rather, the agency seems to believe that a mere focus on Islam inherently demeans other religions. The consortium teaches Middle Eastern languages, history, and geopolitics; it also hosts conferences and events, like film festivals, to bring the region’s culture to the community. To obtain federal funds, the program must “provide a full understanding” of the Middle East to students. And the Trump administration has charged its instructors with neglecting this duty by teaching extensively about Islam.

The accusation that the program is not sufficiently inclusive draws on a strategy commonly deployed by the right against cultural and academic study of marginalized groups. When Wisconsin Republicans threatened to shut down a critical race theory class at a public university, one GOP legislator asserted that the course would add “to the polarization of the races in our state.” And when South Carolina Republicans slashed funding for colleges that assigned LGBTQ-themed books, a GOP legislator explained that the literature “was about promoting one side” over the other.

Tuesday’s complaint is couched in seemingly reasonable terms, demanding “balance” rather than spouting bigotry. But it is just as alarming, because it is seeking to compel speech that aligns with the administration’s agenda. Republican-driven attempts to defund or cancel university courses have largely failed in the face of widespread backlash. The Trump administration’s might not.

The clearest precedent for the administration’s approach is Arizona’s lengthy crusade to ban ethnic studies in public schools. In 2007, Tucson’s superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, declared war on the district’s Mexican American studies program, a research-based college preparatory program that focused on the history of Latinos in the U.S. Horne claimed the program was “creating a hostile atmosphere in the school for the other students” and teaching “a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism.” He was also alarmed by student chapters of La Raza, a progressive Latino organization, which he accused of radicalizing students.

Horne lobbied vigorously to ban Mexican American studies and similar programs. The Republican-controlled state Legislature soon piled on; GOP state Rep. Steve Montenegro charged the program was attempting to provoke “racial warfare.” Republican state Sen. John Huppenthal, a chief proponent of the ban, argued that it was trying to “plant evil ideas in kids’ minds” and indoctrinating them with “a certain mindset of us versus them.” State Sen. Russell Pearce, another GOP supporter of the ban, called the course “very anti-American hateful hate speech.”

None of these allegations were true. The classes did not denigrate white people; they explored the Latino American experience over centuries of colonialism. Latino students who enrolled in the course demonstrated increased academic achievement, helping to close the “achievement gap” with white students.

Nevertheless, the Arizona Legislature passed the ban on ethnic studies, including any classes that “[a]dvocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” The law stated that its objective was to combat racism. It allowed state officials to strip funding of schools that continue to offer forbidden courses or use prohibited materials.

In 2017, Judge A. Wallace Tashima struck down the law. Tashima ruled that the ban violated students’ First Amendment right “to receive information and ideas.” Its real goal, he wrote, was not “reducing racism,” as the Legislature insisted. Rather, the law was “motivated by racial animus,” not any legitimate government interest.

Although the Arizona crusade ultimately proved unsuccessful, the Department of Education appears to be adopting its playbook. The agency’s letter to the consortium does not cite any instances of anti-Semitism; rather, it complains that the program is overly focused on Muslims (who make up the overwhelming majority of the Middle East). The courses allegedly “lack balance” and place too much “emphasis” on “understanding the positive aspects of Islam,” and not the “the positive aspects of Christianity [and] Judaism.”

“This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling,” the agency concluded, and suggests that the consortium’s activities “are plainly unqualified for taxpayer support.”

There are echoes of Huppenthal in this allegation: Much like how the Mexican American studies program was “racist” because it discussed the Latino experience from a Latino perspective, the Duke-UNC Consortium “lack[s] balance” because it emphasizes the Muslim experience from a Muslim perspective. According to this framing, any academic course that highlights the experience of a single group—Latinos in Arizona, Muslims in the consortium—is fundamentally discriminatory.

The Trump administration is savvier than legislators in Arizona and South Carolina, who openly sought to ban specific classes and materials. The Department of Education instead seeks to force the consortium to adjust its curriculum to the Trump administration’s demands. It is compelling instructors to teach courses and hold events that better convey “the positive aspects of Christianity [and] Judaism.” And it may well succeed—not because the Trump administration has a strong case but because the consortium might prefer to give in than engage in a lengthy legal battle over its own funding. While the administration purports to defend free speech on campus, it is using the powers of the federal government to engage in flagrant censorship.