George Boardman: Federal government starting to meddle in academic freedom issues |

George Boardman: Federal government starting to meddle in academic freedom issues

George Boardman
Laura Mahaffy/ | The Union

Observations from the center stripe: Saccharin edition

OH NO: The Hallmark Channel is already running Christmas movies…IF GOV. Newsom’s call for an investigation into gasoline price fixing turns out like all of the others, it will end with a whimper and not a bang…WHY DO I get the feeling that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is being punished for being too successful?...GAME, SET, match to Turkish President Recep Erdogan…IT’S NOT a good look when you need a ladder to wash the windshield of your pick-up truck…

The oft-stated ideal of academic freedom seems to be honored more in the breach these days, and not in the honorable way the Bard suggested when he wrote that line in “Hamlet.”

We are all familiar by now with incidences of speakers being shouted down on college campuses, students seeking a safe haven from thoughts and ideas they don’t like, and academics whose careers are sidetracked because they don’t parrot the conventional wisdom.

Conservatives suspect this takeover of academia is part of a plot to turn malleable students into liberals, progressives, or — even worse — socialists. They may be right, but two recent incidents of government meddling in academic affairs should cause people who claim they distrust big government to take pause.

The U.S. Department of Education has ordered Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to remake a Middle East studies program because it allegedly violates the standards of a federal program that awards funding to international studies programs.

The department said the schools were offering students a biased program because in its outreach to elementary and secondary school students, there was “considerable emphasis placed on the understanding of 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.”

You would think native-born American youth would already be familiar with the virtues of Judeo-Christian beliefs, but government overseers apparently believe they can’t be emphasized often enough. You also have to place this in the context of the ongoing campus debate over who is more virtuous, Israel or Palestine. Naturally, both sides see different messages in crackdown.

The department’s action “should be a wake-up call,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, which opposes the boycott Israel movement.”What they’re saying is, ‘If you want to be biased and show an unbalanced view of the Middle East, you can do that, but you’re not going to get federal and taxpayer money.’”

“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,” said Zoha Khalili, a staff lawyer at Palestine Legal. The department’s intervention, she added, “sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to tow the government line on Israel.’

A political appointee with his own agenda initiated the review and warning. The Education Department’s civil rights chief, Kenneth Marcus, has made a career of pro-Israel advocacy and has waged a years-long campaign to delegitimize and defund Middle East studies programs that he has criticized as rife with anti-Israel bias.

In 2014, he wrote an opinion article that assailed Title VI, which funds such programs, for “being used to support biased and academically worthless programming on college campuses,” leaving students and faculty with opposing views “ostracized and threatened.”

“Aside from their intellectual vapidity,” Marcus wrote, “many of these programs poison the atmosphere on campus.” He called on the department to establish a complaint process that would prompt extensive reviews of entire programs like the one being undertaken at UNC and Duke.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley has sent letters to Duke, Harvard, Sara Lawrence College and Villanova University seeking information on the current culture of academic freedom on their campuses.

Grassley, heretofore known as a staunch advocate of subsidies for corn farmers and ethanol in your gas tank, expressed concern over the openness of debate on our college campuses in an op-ed piece published by the Wall Street Journal after the letters were mailed.

“…college and university professors should be free to teach and research — and students should be free to learn — to the best of their abilities in defiance of an undiscerning ‘instinct to believe what others do,’” he wrote.

“This letter respectfully requests information regarding the university’s commitment to creating such an educational environment in which its faculty can teach topics and take positions on matters that defy conventional wisdom and challenge orthodoxies in necessary but perhaps uncomfortable ways.”

These schools were singled out because of recent incidences that suggest a suppression of academic freedom. Duke and Harvard were cited from parting company with professors because of their association with an unpopular person (Harvard) or a teaching style that made students uncomfortable (Duke). Sarah Lawrence and Villanova are also being asked about professors who expressed unpopular views.

Grassley is also seeking details on how Duke’s Bias Response Advisory Committee and Villanova’s Bias Response Team affect the universities’ environment for “free and open inquiry.”

The universities were asked to respond to the letters by last Friday, and this will probably lead to a Senate hearing where the presidents of the four institutions will be made to squirm in public — think Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

No legislation or regulatory changes will come out of this, but university presidents across the country will get the message that future federal funding may come with meddling in their academic affairs—caution is advised.

This strikes me as a case of the cure being worse than the disease. Do we really want government bureaucrats meddling in course content or passing judgment on the campus culture? That sounds like Cuba and China. Americans of all political persuasions should oppose that kind of meddling.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at

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