Trump administration threatens to cut funding from university course for 'positive' discussion of Islam

Alex Woodward
US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposes new rules about campus sexual assault and harassment: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has threatened to disqualify a university-level Middle East studies programme from receiving federal funding for teaching the “positive aspects of Islam”.

The US Department of Education has ordered that the programme run by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University revise their course plans by 22 September or risk losing future funding.

The administration claims the course has “critical shortcomings and impermissible biases”, with “very little serious instruction” on national security and instead “considerable emphasis” on the “positive aspects of Islam”.

In a letter dated August 29 and sent to the programme’s directors, the Department says course topics including Iranian art and film offer “little to no relevance” under the funding guidelines, nor do they “support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of US national security and economic stability”. Instead, the course places “considerable emphasis on advancing ideological priorities”, the Department has claimed.

The programme “should not be funded or subsidised in any way by American taxpayers” unless the courses “clearly demonstrate that such programmes are secondary to more rigorous coursework helping American students to become fluent Farsi speakers and to prepare for work in areas of national need", according to the letter.

The Department also accuses the programme of having a “lack of balance” in its discussion of Islam, “while there is an absolute absence of any similar focus on the positive aspects of Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion or belief system in the Middle East”.

Education secretary Betsy DeVos ordered the investigation in June following a complaint from Republican North Carolina congressman George Holding alleging “severe anti-Israel bias and antisemitic rhetoric” at a consortium-hosted conference. The March conference discussed “Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics, and Possibilities” at UNC.

The letter didn’t confirm those allegations but asserted that the programme advances “narrow, particularized views of American social issues”.

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The US National Resource Centre programme was founded in 1965 to offer federal funding for language and culture programming for students entering careers in diplomacy and national security. The National Resource Centre awarded $22 million in grant funding to language courses at 40 universities last year; the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies received $235,000 from federal grant funds last year.

Academics have warned that creeping political interest into academia could endanger other programmes that receive similar funds.

Henry Reichman, chairman of a committee on academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press that “the odour of right wing political correctness that comes through this definitely could have a chilling effect”.

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