Publication Date

April 1, 2004

Late last year, the House of Representatives passed (by voice vote) legislation sponsored by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.)—the “International Studies in Higher Education Act” (HR 3077), which reauthorizes the international education and foreign language programs of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (Title VI). Federal Title VI monies (about $95 million a year) fund fellowships, language instruction, and special lectures and discussions in more than 118 “area studies centers” (such as Middle East, Latin America, and Southeast Asia) throughout the nation. Hoekstra’s bill has now moved to the Senate where it is attracting the attention of lawmakers, academics, and scholarly activists.

One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation is a provision creating a powerful “advisory board” charged to review and assess Middle Eastern studies centers and programs in the nation’s colleges and universities. Critics maintain that the term “advisory board” is an inaccurate designation, since the board has investigative authority, its own staff, and no requirement that it report to the secretary of education. If this legislation is permitted to pass in its present (House-passed) form, says John Hammer of the National Humanities Alliance, the board’s activities “could be both political and intimidating.”

According to Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle Eastern Studies Association, the proposed board targets Middle Eastern studies programs, but if allowed to stand would “establish a precedent for future legislation directed at any field, discipline, or professional school in any and all universities.” Academic freedom is at the heart of the controversy, say opponents to the legislation. Through periodic governmental oversight, critics state that legislators, not professors, could ultimately be responsible for determining Middle Eastern studies curricula and course content. So potentially dangerous is the provision that some centers may opt to discontinue receiving federal money if the advisory board is created.
The idea of creating a board emerged last year when conservative critics of academia charged that Middle Eastern studies programs, including those found in “area study centers” in colleges and universities across the nation, were “anti-American and anti-Israeli” and called for the creation of a board to review them. In June 2003, Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, was invited to testify before a House subcommittee. Kurtz charged that academics in Middle Eastern studies were biased against U.S. foreign policy. He then urged Congress, through its power of the purse, to correct the situation by taking action to “balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy.” His testimony fell on sympathetic ears in Congress, and helped persuade both Republican and Democratic legislators to authorize the so-called advisory board.

The House-passed bill authorizes $500,000 for the creation of a board charged to “study, monitor, apprize and evaluate a sample of activities supported under this title” and to “provide recommendations for program improvement and ensure that programs meet the title’s purposes.” The board is expected to “make recommendations that will promote the … development of such programs at the post-secondary education level that will reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs.” Critics charge that the proposed legislation “interjects federal intervention in the classroom” by granting broad investigative authority to the board, thus empowering it to probe into grantee activities, including individual faculty (and new hires) and curricular content. In theory, the board could be a major force over university staffing and in hiring of guest lecturers, making curriculum decisions, approving books for classes, and recommending approaches to be taken when teaching a specific subject. Such intrusive and broad oversight might prove to be intimidating and First Amendment infringements become especially possible. Ironically, though, supporters of the legislative measure, including Kurtz, argue that without the proposed federal government oversight, “the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated.”

Particularly alarming to critics of the legislation is that it provides no limit to the board’s power to secure the “services, personnel, information, and facilities of other federal, state, local and private agencies with or without reimbursement.” The board is empowered to “secure directly from any executive department, bureau, agency, board, commission, office independent establishment, or instrumentality information, suggestions estimates, and statistics.” The coercive powers of the board also give rise to the concern that private organizations and institutions could be forced to provide information and assistance to the board.

The composition of the proposed board is perhaps the key objection of many critics. It bears no resemblance to a “peer-review” panel comprised of experts in the field as is commonly created to assist in the administration of science and education-related programs. Three members would be named by the secretary of education, and one each by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. Only two agencies are to be represented on the board and they must be selected from among agencies with national security responsibilities. Traditionally, the Departments of Treasury, Commerce, Interior, and Agriculture, as well as other federal entities such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, are included in such advisory bodies. In this instance, they are not represented.

Critics also cite dangers that political appointees, who, lacking any real expertise or knowledge in Middle East affairs, would fall back on their political biases when reviewing programs. While the board is specifically forbidden to “control curricula,” nevertheless, according to Newhall, “it is intrusive…and the potential for meddling is still very great.”

Now the Senate will address the Hoekstra bill. Most Hill observers expect that some type of advisory board will be included in the final legislation, though striking the board entirely from the bill is still not out of the question. Reportedly, some Republican staffers on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee concede that the House legislation is in need of a “few changes.” Democratic staffers appear willing to listen, reports one insider, though they “need convincing.” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the ranking minority member of the HELP committee, is strongly opposed to any advisory board as is Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), a junior member of the committee, who also has taken a firm stand against the proposed advisory committee.

The National Humanities Alliance, an association representing the diverse interests of the humanities and scholarly communities, has taken a strong interest in the pending legislation. The NHA has issued a call for associations and individuals to weigh in on the advisory board issue. Because mail addressed to the Senate is likely to be delayed because of security procedures, those who wish to express an opinion should use fax or e-mail. Fax numbers and e-mail addresses may be obtained by visiting member web sites or by visiting Senators may also be contacted by calling the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

— is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at

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