Speaking in 'approved' tongues
Should the government be allowed more oversight of foreign language study?
NEW YORK — As in many college departments, intellectual independence is a theme at Columbia's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.
An office door is decorated with a sticker that reads "Subvert the dominant paradigm," and the topics of faculty-authored books on display range from Iranian cinema to Israeli literature. But some academics worry this independence may be at risk as legislation increasing oversight of international studies programs makes its way through Congress.
The bill, called the International Studies Higher Education Act (HR 3077), reauthorizes about $80 million in funding for international and foreign language study, but with a twist - now the government would allocate more resources to programs that emphasize national security.
Proponents of the bill say that the reauthorization is routine and the new focus is key to enhancing government intelligence capabilities. But academics are up in arms over what they see as possible infringement on academic freedom.
"I feel that it is a very dangerous precedent to get any intellectual enterprise under supervision by any ideological or government agency," says Professor George Saliba, Director of Graduate Studies at Columbia's MEALAC. "No matter how well-meaning and patriotic and benign and all of that, it inevitably will have repercussions on the freedom of speech, on the free flow of information, and on the way research is done."
If approved, the bill could have significant impact on international studies. Programs that do not prepare students for careers in national security would clearly be disadvantaged in the competition for federal funding.
The language of the bill is vague, however, when it comes to assessing the importance of different departments.
Some argue that those producing the largest number of students going into security-related professions would - and should - be favored. But others are concerned that the views of professors might also be weighed, allowing the government to cut off funding to departments that voice disagreement with its policies.
Critics worry that this could ultimately create a form of post-9/11 McCarthyism, endangering the atmosphere of critical thought that universities make possible.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R) of Michigan, who authored the bill as Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Select Education, says the bill has been misinterpreted. And now, in spite of its unanimous approval by the House last October, growing criticism may slow its progress through the Senate.
The bill is part of a larger renewal of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which is done every five to six years. Under Title VI, the program offers competitive grants averaging about $250,000 to area studies programs at schools like Columbia, Brigham Young, Georgetown, and Michigan State University, with many receiving multiple awards. Mr. Hoekstra's changes would let the government keep closer track of how this money is being spent.
The bill's most controversial provision would create a seven-member international advisory board to report to the Secretary of Education on how effectively international studies programs are meeting national needs and to make funding recommendations based on their findings. Two members of the Board would be appointed by the Senate, two by the House, and three by the secretary of Education, two of which would come from government agencies with security responsibilities. Other members would include politicians, representatives of cultural and educational organizations, and private citizens.
For the bill's supporters, it's entirely logical for the government to want to ensure a return on its investment. But critics worry that a board heavier on legislators and security experts than on academics might lack respect for both academic integrity and freedom.
Another controversial provision calls for a "study to identify foreign language heritage communities, particularly such communities that include speakers of languages ... critical to ... national security."
This section was contributed by Congressman Rush Holt (D) of New Jersey, who says it will ease recruitment of speakers of languages like Pashtu, Urdu, Korean, Farsi, and Arabic. But some observers worry that such provisions will allow the government to keep closer tabs on immigrant communities.
The bill's vague language is also a concern. "It's so broad that it can mean anything. But what it does mean for sure is that it [will] influence academic programs so that they reflect the national security need," says Udi Ofer of the New York Bill of Rights Defense Campaign at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Hoekstra, who is also chairman of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, maintains that the bill would help build a strong cadre of students who are advanced in foreign languages and regional studies.
"Many times America is kind of naive," he says. "We don't train large numbers of students who major in international studies.... You look at the intel services, and these kinds of things, one of the glaring weaknesses that continually comes up is the lack of language skills and lack of people who are knowledgeable in different parts of the world." But if the bill does not pass through the Senate, the reauthorization for these Title VI grants will expire, and it is likely that the funding will be eliminated. "I won't do it the way it was done before," says Hoekstra.
But academics are apprehensive about measures that would tinker with a system they say already works quite well.
"American universities are doing a very good job of exposing their students to a diverse range of viewpoints, and there is plenty of accountability," says Susan Gzesh, acting director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago.
The government and universities both want to teach students, Saliba says, but with different goals in mind. "I want to teach the students how to read the language," he says. "I want to give them tools in their hands." But then, he adds, they must be free to deploy those tools as they choose. "That is the total freedom of the educational institution."