New Threats to Academic Freedom in International Education

Viewpoint: New Threats to Academic Freedom in International Education

Tripp, Aili

The Senate will be considering legislation that could dramatically change the character of international education in this country. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) is considering a provision in Title Vl of the upcoming Higher Education Reauthorization bill that would create an advisory board to ensure that federally funded international studies centers adequately serve national needs as they pertain to homeland security. If the legislation is not taken up this spring it will be considered in 2005. The House voted unanimously last fall to establish such an oversight committee in the International Studies in Higher Education Act, HR 3077. Now there is growing concern that language similar to HR 3077 may become part of the Senate’s Higher Education Reauthorization bill.

Normally an advisory board would not be of much concern, but this particular initiative is being viewed with alarm nationwide by large numbers who teach international studies because they feel academic freedom is under threat. The board would be composed of political appointments and representatives of intelligence agencies who do not necessarily have professional competencies in area and language studies. Those proposing the board appear determined to end what they characterize as a bias in the academy, which they see as undermining U.S. foreign policy and actively discouraging students from working for the federal government.

The focus of their attention is Middle East studies, but all Title Vl programs would be affected as the proposed advisory board would oversee all National Resource Centers (NRCs) and other programs funded by Title Vl. These centers were formed to strengthen and maintain U.S. capacity in foreign languages and area studies through the training of specialists in less-commonly taught languages and area and international studies. Currently 118 NRCs are funded throughout the U.S. in nine world areas.

If approved, the Advisory Board will not only be charged with broad policy directions in Title Vl, but will also have the right to weigh in on which centers get funded, curricular design, and faculty and graduate student research.

The proposal for an advisory board comes at a time when public funding for higher education is in serious decline and at a time when Title Vl funds for international studies have been in decline. This year’s authorizations for Title Vl appropriations total close to $104 million compared with almost $108 million in 2003. In 1967, 2,344 students won Title Vl foreign language awards compared with 1,640 fellowships after a post-9/11 increase in funding. These cuts also come at a time when there have been calls for stronger foreign language expertise and greater capacity for international analysis.

The Advisory Board itself would not come cheap: it would cost the equivalent of 25-30 Title Vl fellowships. Interestingly, in the 1980s, when the federal government was running a budget deficit, such a similar advisory board was eliminated on financial grounds.

For decades after 1965, when the Higher Education Act was enacted, the government supported university research in international and area studies with the expectation that it would be independent of ideological influences. Today, the university community is deeply concerned about the potential for an advisory board to introduce these elements into international education.

Challenges to academic freedom have no place in institutions of higher learning, where any form of real or threatened censorship will automatically undermine our credibility as scholars and erode the quality of research. One cannot educate and learn about the world under these kinds of conditions. Clearly, this is not conducive to the freedom of speech that is so vital in keeping institutions of learning places for the free exchange of ideas. One of the reasons U.S. institutions of higher learning have become world leaders has been precisely because they have had the freedom of expression necessary to nurture and develop creative ideas, original thinking, and new knowledge. Creating an atmosphere of suspicion would only serve to discourage students from learning languages considered important from a national security standpoint and at a time when more than ever we need this expertise.

The other reason to be concerned with the new interest in ideologically driven scholarship is the danger that we may ignore inconvenient facts and evidence, and overlook relevant historic, economic, political and social contexts in the pursuit of pre-conceived solutions. We run the risk of not considering realistic, viable and affordable policy options. Dogmas of any kind poison the academic enterprise, which – is all about examining and reexamining old truths, criticizing and being self-critical of what we know, seeking new evidence and constantly challenging ourselves to come to greater understanding of the world.

If accountability is the issue, we already have ample oversight in the form of panels that review NRC proposals and Fulbright Hays applications, campus review committees of programs, detailed program annual reports, external evaluations of programs, on-site visits by the Department of Education, and many other mechanisms to ensure quality.

If government service is the issue, then it is erroneous to suggest that participants in Title Vl programs come up short. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I teach, is a national leader in international education and language instruction and is home to eight NRCs, the largest number of national resource centers in any one institution. We also have a Title Vl-funded Center for International Business Education (CIBER) and the National African Language Resource Center. We teach over 40 languages on a regular basis. We train a large number of the people who go into government service and international business. Our doctoral graduates go on to teach in universities and colleges around the country to train new generations of students to better understand the world. Many of our graduates at all levels have regularly gone into government service, from the Department of Defense to the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, Peace Corps, and to the Army. I currently have one former PhD student working at the State Department’s Office of International Women’s Issues and another student who completed a year as a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Governance, U.S. Agency for International Development.

In addition, UW-Madison’s international studies faculty provide critical expertise to the government in various capacities. One political scientist recently served for a year as an officer in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Department of State. Our faculty carry out consultancies and hold briefings for the Department of Defense, Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and the U.S. Congressional Committee on International Relations. In addition, we brief U.S. ambassadors and diplomatic missions on a regular basis. In this regard we are typical of other institutions that house NRCs.

The claim that area studies programs adhere to a certain set of dogmas rings especially hollow. I have been involved for the past 25 years with area studies programs (especially African studies and Middle East studies) as a graduate student, faculty member and administrator at three institutions. I am struck not by the consensus among the faculty, but by the wide differences in scholarly approaches and political perspectives I have encountered. Moreover, one cannot assume that students themselves would uncritically absorb every view they encounter in the classroom.

In sum, the proposed advisory board would hamper rather than enhance our ability to strengthen international education in this country. The extraordinary authority of the advisory board to monitor and evaluate grant recipients would add an intrusive and potentially damaging burden to our academic programs, which already conform to rigorous federal reporting requirements and reviews. The Board’s functions, which could extend to curricular review and mandates, have the potential for curtailing freedom of expression and speech, which academic institutions hold dear.

The proposed board would have serious consequences on the quality of our scholarship and our ability to produce people who are properly equipped to meet the challenges of working in a global context in the years ahead. Ultimately, it has the potential to undermine the very goal of national security it seeks to protect.

Aili Tripp is a member of the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association. She is professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a member of the university’s African Studies Program.

Copyright African Studies Association Apr 2004

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