Betsy DeVos' DOE threatens to cut Duke, UNC funding for positive portrayal of Islam

Middle East studies program run by prestigious N.C. schools under threat over focus on "positive aspects of Islam"

By Igor Derysh
September 20, 2019 10:47PM (UTC)
main article image
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before the House Education and Labor Committee at a hearing on 'Examining the Policies and Priorities of the U.S. Department of Education' on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The U.S Department of Education threatened to pull federal funding from a Middle East studies course jointly run by Duke University and the University of North Carolina because it portrays Islam too positively.

The DOE ordered the universities to change their program or lose its federal grant money. In a letter to UNC, the department criticized the program, arguing that topics like Iranian art and film have “little or no relevance” to the Middle East studies program. The letter also argues that the program “appears to lack balance” because its programs are not focused on the discrimination faced by “religious minorities in the Middle East," including Christians and Jews.


“There is a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding the positive aspects 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," the letter said. “This lack of balance of perspectives is troubling and strongly suggests that Duke-UNC CMES is not meeting legal requirement that National Resource Centers ‘provide a full understanding of the areas, regions, or countries.’”

The letter appears to reflect the views of new department civil rights chief Kenneth Marcus, The New York Times reported. He has long been a pro-Israel advocate and “waged a years-long campaign to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs that he has criticized as rife with anti-Israel bias.”

Palestinian rights groups condemned the letter and accused the Department of Education of trying to intimidate schools into curriculums that are approved by the current administration.


“They really want to send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death,” Zoha Khalili, an attorney for Palestine Legal, told the Times, adding that the letter “sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel.”

Henry Reichman, who chairs a committee on academic freedom at the American Association of University Professors, told the Associated Press that the government intervention could set a dangerous precedent.

“Is the government now going to judge funding programs based on the opinions of instructors or the approach of each course?” he asked. “The odor of right wing political correctness that comes through this definitely could have a chilling effect.”


Since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has taken over, the department has certainly moved far to the right. DeVos kicked off her 2019 “Back-to-School” tour earlier this week by visiting a Catholic school that prohibits trans people from attending classes or working there and claims that gender-affirming medical care is "self-mutilation and therefore immoral."

DeVos has also used her position to help big corporations at the expense of students. Her department has created new rules that make it more difficult for federal student loan borrowers to seek debt relief in cases where colleges defrauded them, and has rolled back Obama-era rules intended to protect students from abusive for-profit colleges.


This week, the department admitted in a court filing that it violated a court order barring the collection of student loan payments by borrowers defrauded by Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit institution whose programs DeVos herself described as “worthless.”

The department admitted to trying to collect debts from more than 16,000 student borrowers who had attended programs run by Corinthian Colleges. The department also admitted that hundreds of borrowers had their credit negatively affected by the prohibited efforts to collect and more than 1,800 had their wages or tax refund garnished.

After violating the May court order, the department promised that it would be “sending such borrowers notices informing them that they will be receiving refunds.”

Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: Twitter: @IgorDerysh

MORE FROM Igor Derysh