Advance Notice: Briefs

Levin calls Duke-UNC investigation over Islamic curriculum a ‘threat to academic freedom’

By: - November 4, 2019 1:56 pm

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and U.S. Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) sent a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos outlining concerns and requesting documentation regarding the department’s investigation into the Duke-University of North Carolina (UNC) Consortium for Middle Eastern Studies curriculum.

\U.S. Rep. Andy Levin at the “Take on Hate” rally in Dearborn, Aug. 29, 2019 | Allison Donahue

In August, the Department of Education (DOE) wrote a letter to the university requesting that they revise the program’s curriculum, saying it unfairly portrays “the positive aspects of Islam,” and has 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 department gave the university until Sept. 22 to send a “revised schedule of activities” in order to continue receiving federal grant money through Title VI. 

The National Resource Center (NRC), a program through the DOE, provides grants to higher education institutions that support international studies and foreign language programs.

Duke-UNC responded to the department’s letter and received its funding for 2019-20, despite the ongoing controversy around the grant. The Associated Press reported the university received $235,000 from the grant last year. 

But Levin and Davis say this investigation is bigger than this singular instance and is “a direct threat to academic freedom” for all higher education institutions in the country. 

“While we believe the Department has a serious responsibility to ensure that universities appropriately spend the taxpayer dollars it awards, such inquiries must not threaten academic freedom,” Levin and Davis wrote.  “The Department’s public investigation of the Duke-UNC Consortium will reverberate across American colleges and universities, perhaps causing all institutions to consider whether the federal government will investigate them because of curricula it dislikes.”

Levin is vice chair of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee, and Davis serves chairs the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment.

In the letter to DeVos, Levin and Davis requested a number of documents pertaining to the department’s investigation into the program’s curriculum and grant spending. 

They are particularly interested in grant documents, standard review procedures for NRC grants and all internal documents regarding specifically the Duke-UNC consortium review. 

Bobby Scott

Levin and Davis requested the documents and answers to the questions outlined in the letter by Nov. 15. 

The Department of Education was unavailable for comment by the time of publication. 

DeVos is currently in a battle with the U.S. Education and Labor Committee after refusing to publicly testify this month about the department’s stall for tens of thousands of “borrower defense” claims. U.S. House Education Committee Chair Bobby Scott (D-Va.) threatened to subpoena DeVos by the end of the week if she doesn’t voluntarily appear to give her testimony.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.