Betsy DeVos Threatens To Cut Funding for Duke-UNC Middle East Studies. Why Stop There?

The Department of Education alleges the universities' research is discriminatory against certain religions.


The Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) is fighting to retain a federal grant after the U.S. Department of Education accused the group of displaying a disqualifying bias against Christianity and Judaism. While the department's decision is a potential affront to free speech and academic freedom, it's also a great example of why the federal government shouldn't dole out such grants to anyone.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos opened an investigation in July at the behest of Rep. George Holding (R–N.C.), who alleged that a recent consortium conference, titled "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities," was rife with anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments. In 2018, the Office of Postsecondary Education awarded CMES a four-year grant for $235,000 per year as part of a program meant to train U.S. students to become global leaders. After coming across the conference, Holding wanted it revoked.

In an August letter to the consortium, the Department of Education alleges that "most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized." Such funds should be spent only on preparing participants for roles in diplomacy, national security, international business, and education, and the Duke-UNC Chapel Hill Consortium offers "very little serious instruction preparing individuals to understand the geopolitical challenges to U.S. national security and economic needs but quite a considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities," the department says. In short, CMES is too pro-Islam.

Students who participated in the program told The Daily Tar Heel that they disagree with the accusations made by the congressman and the Department of Education. Maggie Barkowitz, a Jewish graduate of UNC Chapel Hill who attended several events at the CMES, said that she never encountered any anti-Semitism. The focus on Islam made sense from her vantage point, as the university's department is called the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies⁠. She also noted that her classes weren't biased against any particular religion.

In a letter to Robert King, the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Education, the Duke-UNC CMES tried to dispel the notion that its activities disqualify it from federal assistance. "The Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program," writes Terri Magnuson, UNC's Vice Chancellor for Research.

Reactions have been predictably polarized. One such response came from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which argued against the Department of Education. "The federal government may fairly condition the award of funds on the satisfaction of certain criteria," FIRE wrote in a statement, "but determining how best to satisfy grant terms that involve academic or pedagogical judgments, especially those which contain ambiguity, should remain the province of the academy." Some of the requirements are too vague, they say, like proving ideological "balance."

The pro-speech group is not wrong. It is difficult to fairly measure fairness. Such judgments hinge on who is doing the judging. But if it is impossible to measure the wider social benefit of a concentrated subsidy, why are tax dollars paying for it?

We ask this question of all kinds of subsidies. Tax credits for Hollywood studios and professional sports teams are considered by economists to be a waste of money. Government subsidies for firearms manufacturers would likely offend half the country, and that's before you take into consideration they've been secured by lawmakers who favor gun control! Pick a subsidy, take a poll, and you'll find some group of people who find that subsidy offensive, useless, or otherwise objectionable.

Add our bloated national debt on top of that, and people have good reasons to question the merits of funding programs like the one run by Duke and UNC, two well-funded, untaxed, elite universities with endowments valued at $8 billion and $5 billion respectively.

Why not do away with these grants altogether? Let the market determine which programs are actually preparing the diplomats of tomorrow and encourage philanthropists to fund the programs that can't quantify their value. This spares taxpayers the frustration of funding policies and programs they don't like or understand and the people at CMES and other academic institutions the position of justifying their existence to culture-warring bureaucrats. Government, meanwhile, can and should stick to the provision of basic services.