An uneasy dispute between the U.S. Department of Education and a joint Middle East studies program run by UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University has serious ramifications for academic freedom — and, ultimately, national security.

We’d all be better off if DOE withdrew its complaint and let the educators do their job.

The Education Department is threatening to cut funding for the program, arguing that it’s misusing a federal grant to advance “ideological priorities” and unfairly places too much emphasis on “the positive aspects of Islam” at a cost to Christian and Jewish minorities in the Middle East. In an Aug. 29 letter, DOE ordered the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings or risk losing future funding — some $235,000, according to Education Department data. The program enrolls 960 students out of 6,791 in the overall Middle East studies program.

DOE claims that the program failed to provide a “balance of perspectives” on religion. It also claims that the consortium focused too much on cultural offerings and not enough on language or national security. UNC-CH’s research chief, Terry Magnuson, responded respectfully in a letter, saying that UNC “deeply values its partnership” with the Education Department and “has always been strongly committed to complying” with the grant program. Magnuson also said the school would establish an advisory board to review the consortium’s activities and would keep detailed records of the consortium’s expenses.

But he defended the consortium from the charges, also, citing the dozens of programs it hosts every year on national security and economic issues, sometimes featuring former national security officials. He touted the benefits of offering cultural programs, which help improve language acquisition and attract new students to the consortium’s courses. He said the consortium has been a leader in Middle Eastern language studies for years.

DOE’s complaint can likely be traced back to a letter sent from U.S. Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, condemning the consortium for holding a conference with “severe anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitic rhetoric.” As Joshua Leifer, writing for The Guardian, noted: “In other words, it seems the program was teaching its students about the complex and varied cultures of countries in the Middle East instead of how to dominate them.”

To some extent the disagreement is just that — a disagreement. The Education Department wants more of X instead of Y. And if the consortium wants the grant, it should do what the department says. But Duke and UNC have better educational reputations than DOE, which has taken on overly ideological tones under DeVos’ guidance. She often has sided with the student-loan predators that have helped create America’s $1.3 trillion student debt burden rather than with the students she should be serving. And, given the well-known antipathy toward Muslims of her champion, President Trump, we suspect her department is not exactly unbiased in its judgment.

Teaching Arabic languages — and the culture of those who use them — serves an important function for international commerce as well as diplomatic efforts and national security. We must be able to understand what our allies and ideological foes say about us when they think we’re not listening.

Diminishing — or politicizing — programs that assist that goal may please ideologues, but ultimately, would be harmful to our nation.

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