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DOE defends investigation amid interest group responses

Aisha Jitan, a junior global studies major and Islamic & Middle East studies minor, addresses a crowd at a protest on the steps of South Building on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. Demonstrators gathered against the Department of Education's demands to recast the tone of Duke University's and UNC-Chapel Hill's Middle East Studies program. Regarding the Department's rhetoric as Islamophobic, Jitan remarked: "We were really angry about what we read, especially given that we lost three Muslim people in our community not too long ago due to Islamophobia, and then after reading and hearing this, we were just angry and said we want better for our community."

The Department of Education funds were to be obligated to the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies by Sept. 30, according to a letter published Sept. 17. 

Asked about the status of the funds, Press Secretary Angela Morabito from the Department did not address the funding but did reference opposition to the investigation. 

“A comprehensive study of the Middle East is not anti-Muslim or pro-any other group," Morabito said in an email. "It’s just that: comprehensive. It is absurd to be accused of bigotry for recommending the inclusion of religious and ethnic minorities. Real bigotry would be ignoring or dismissing the existence of religious minorities as immaterial to a full understanding of the region." 

She then directly referenced the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The ACLU alleges that this inquiry is ‘not motivated by any governing statute.’ That’s not correct,” Morabito said.

Morabito’s response came days after Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, made a statement about the investigation. 

“The administration’s censorship efforts undermine academic freedom and have no factual or legal basis. The administration should instead be focused on rooting out the deep-seated anti-Muslim bigotry within its own ranks,” Ruane said in a statement on the ACLU’s website.

Ruane mentioned UNC's response to the Department's letter, which said some parts of the program that the department took issue with were in fact not supported by Title VI funds. 

“The statute doesn’t actually permit the DOE to require universities to comply with the administration’s idea of idealogical balance as it relates to Islam versus any other religion, or really as it relates to most other things,” Ruane said. 

She said nothing in the statute or the regulations governing the Title VI programs at issue requires funding recipients to deemphasize the positive aspects of Islam or to comply with the administration’s ideological goals.

The ACLU hopes to find out why this investigation was launched, and whether there are any similar investigations going on. According to Ruane, the organization is deeply troubled by the Department’s inquiry, due to its potential impact on curricula at other institutions.

“What we really want to know is, what motivated the institution of this investigation and are there any other similar investigations out there?” Ruane said.

Ruane said the existence of this threat puts other universities that receive Title VI funding on notice that they must espouse particular viewpoints, to the satisfaction of the government, lest they lose their funding. 

“The chilling effect of the letter itself is extremely concerning for academic freedom and for the universities in this country that have long been able to design their curricula without the micromanagement of the federal government,” Ruane said.

Will Creeley, senior vice president for legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, had similar concerns about academic freedom. 

“By requiring for example, certain types of 'balance,' as the letter suggests, or questioning whether the focus of given courses of study was sufficiently attuned to what appears to be the administration’s policy preferences — those are troubling, so far as they suggest that the administration sees fit to assert itself as the arbiter of what constitutes good pedagogy or worthy academic study. That’s not the proper role for the federal government,” Creeley said.

Creeley said all citizens benefit when ideas are voiced, refined and debated, and academic institutions such as UNC are the best-equipped institutions to give these ideas the discussion that they need.

“I think what’s needed now is a robust defense of institutional academic freedom rights, and a reminder to all citizens, not just folks in the academy, of the importance and the benefit to the nation from maintaining universities as true bastions of freedom of expression and academic freedom,” Creeley said.

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