In April, New York’s Columbia University issued a report that, while focused on a matter related to its Middle East studies program, may end up having a broader impact on the study of the region in the United States. More specifically, what occurred at Columbia highlighted the uneasy relationship between education and public funding, and whether universities can use tax dollars to advance what, to critics at least, are ideological agendas.
The Columbia story revolved around whether Middle East studies professors (principally Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi) had abused their position by intimidating students, but also by imposing their pro-Palestinian sympathies in the classroom. When the university administration initially failed to respond to some students’ complaints, the latter made a film documenting their grievances, which was produced by a pro-Israel outfit known as the David Project.
Spurred into action by the film, Columbia appointed a panel to look into the students’ accusations. However, this only led to new controversy when, as a New York Times editorial put it in early April, the administration appointed “one member who had been the dissertation adviser for a professor who had drawn criticism and [appointed] three members who had expressed anti-Israel views that, critics allege, might incline them to soft-pedal complaints.” While the panel report was subsequently considered objective, the university had merely created a new point of contention in order to end another.
The Columbia hullabaloo will not go away easily, largely because it has become so deeply politicized. As Massad told a Times interviewer, “I am simply an entry point for right-wing forces that want to destroy academic freedom.” Massad and his allies believe the issue is whether they can continue to defend the Palestinian cause on U.S. campuses in the face of what they consider a pro-Israel onslaught. For supporters of Israel, the issue boils down to whether the university is the right place to advance, often aggressively, a particular ideology, particularly one which many of them dislike.
There is no consensual answer on either side. However, there is a legitimate protest that has continued to dog the debate, namely whether it is up to the public to continue financing, through Title VI of the National Education Act, Middle East studies centers in American universities where the ideological disputations are taking place. The act, passed in 1958, was designed to allow public funding for area studies on the grounds that the added knowledge could served American national security interests. Partly, this meant that scholars would more readily take one issues relevant to U.S. foreign policy. Over time, however, as the Israeli-American scholar Martin Kramer wrote in his influential pamphlet Ivory Towers on Sand, an indictment of U.S. Middle East studies, the funding became “a secure semi-entitlement” where many academics gradually came to reject the very principle of Title VI funding, namely collaborating with the government on policy issues.
Instead, funded Middle East centers began resisting official efforts to take advantage of their expertise by arguing that academic freedom demanded drawing a clear line between government and university. This self-imposed isolation, in turn, made government less reliant on scholars. Kramer quoted a 1981 Rand report on Middle East studies as saying: “We found in talking with faculty at area centers that their own training often makes it difficult for them to translate scholarly research into an applied format useful to policymakers.”
This perceived irrelevance effectively marginalized Middle East studies centers in American policymaking circles, to the advantage of more practical think tanks. Yet as French Middle East scholar Gilles Kepel recently warned in the Financial Times, “This battle, over the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ approaches to teaching the region’s politics, history and culture, has already caused considerable damage to academia and is now jeopardizing U.S. ability to decipher a complex area in which America is deeply engaged.”
Meanwhile, the notion that academic freedom meant taking money from the government while giving nothing in return proved unsustainable. That’s why the House of Representatives recently passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act (which is currently being debated in the Senate), to provide greater oversight over federal funding to study centers. Many Middle East academics have reacted by crying “censorship”, and Massad’s insistence that both he and academic freedom were being targeted by “right-wing forces” was directed both at the House legislation and at people like Kramer.
There is little evidence for the charge. The House act protects against anything that would “mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.” However, if one mistrusts government, doesn’t it make more sense to simply forego its money and search for “independent” funding in the private sector? In that way, disputes like those at Columbia would be less about “censorship” and more about actual competence and significance.