The Department of Education has faced criticism for its recent investigation into Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill’s joint Consortium for Middle East Studies. School faculty, academic associations, and the American Civil Liberties Union have called the investigation a threat to academic freedom. But their odd interpretation of academic freedom could signal danger for true academic autonomy.
In September, the Department of Education published a letter to Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill suggesting that the schools’ joint Consortium for Middle East Studies does not qualify for a federal grant. The Department indicated that federal grants go to programs that provide, among other things, a “national resource” for teaching a modern language and the instruction needed to provide a full understanding of areas, regions, or countries in which that modern language is used.
The Middle East Consortium does not meet these criteria, the Department wrote, because, among other shortcomings, it does not teach foreign language competency—only 14 percent of students (960 of 6,791) in grant-sponsored programs participate in foreign language classes, let alone achieve mastery. In addition, the consortium does not offer instruction to provide students with a full understanding of the regions studied—it offers few if any programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by religious minorities in the Middle East or the positive aspects of religions other than Islam.
In response, 62 Duke University faculty wrote:
The Department of Education investigation targeted a Middle East center, but should concern all of us. . . At stake, in the current moment, is the ability of Universities to operate freely and openly without the fear of censure, and the ability of faculty to determine what they ‘teach, how they teach it, what they choose to research or write about, or who can speak on our campus.’
But it is the Duke faculty view that is concerning
The faculty suggest that cutting government grants from an academic program because the grant-making body disapproves of it, is censorship. If they are right, then academic freedom means never withdrawing federal grants. Such a view asserts that doing so would jeopardize the freedom of that program to continue to offer its unique teaching methods and content.
In the long run though, this view fosters a troubling preference for existing programs over new ones. Since funds are limited, the Department of Education cannot fund every possible grant applicant. Yet, if they stop providing grants to any program, Duke’s faculty suggest they are violating academic freedom. To protect academic freedom therefore, the Department must continue funding today’s programs regardless of the quality and potential of future programs.
Worse still, the Duke Faculty view invites further government control of academia. By their reasoning, choosing one grant applicant over another could mean preferring one view over another—a violation of academic freedom. Assuming the Department of Education had enough resources therefore, they should provide grants to all applicants. This position would likely inspire more academic institutions to apply for and receive federal grants, but with those grants more academic institutions would be forced to abide by federal compliance requirements that are part and parcel of the grants. For example, those who receive federal funds cannot discriminate based on sex. By some interpretations, that means schools receiving federal funds must accommodate transgender locker room and restroom preferences.
These regulations can leave little autonomy for educational organizations that wish to maintain religious standards or provide as they see fit for the comfort and safety of their students.
Schools should certainly be free to engage in discussion that generates, explores, and challenges new and even controversial ideas. The Supreme Court affirmed this freedom in Healy v. James (1972) where a unanimous majority wrote:
The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools. . . The college classroom with its surrounding environs is peculiarly the ‘market place of ideas,’ and we break no new constitutional ground in reaffirming this Nation’s dedication to safeguarding academic freedom.
But the freedom to discuss, teach, or explore controversial subjects has never depended on government financial support. Nor should it.
If Duke’s faculty truly support academic freedom, they might consider welcoming the withdrawal of federal grants. Without them, University professors would be free to teach what they see as important and how they think best, without fear of losing federal funding or needing to comply with federal policies. Better yet, those truly interested in safeguarding academic freedom should consider turning their attention to the colleges and universities that truly threaten it by forbidding students from speaking, protesting, or gathering signatures for causes they support unless they are in “free speech zones” or by punishing students for speech crimes they may not even know they’ve committed.
There are certainly threats to academic freedom that deserve attention, but at least today, they do not come from the Department of Education’s grant-making decisions.