U.S. lawmakers and academics are engaged in fierce debate over the renewal of Title VI of the Higher Education Act.
Under Title VI, select universities get federal funding and prestigious designation as national resource centers for the study of places and languages the government deems vital for meeting global challenges.
The legislation was first enacted in 1958, during the height of the Cold War, as part of the National Defense Education Act. Its purpose, according to its framers, was to ensure "trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States."
National defense, according to current Department of Education publications, "remains central to the programs 40 years after their inception."
Critics seeking to amend the legislation contend that universities often promote anti-American and anti-Israel biases and do not merit federal funds that were intended to serve American interests.
Many academics worry that restrictions will violate academic freedoms.
While Title VI may have had a noble purpose, it does not work in practice, according to Middle East scholar Martin Kramer. He analyzed Middle East studies centers and the work of the Title VI national resource centers in his 2001 book, "Ivory Towers on Sand -- The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America."
Kramer was the first to charge that using Title VI monies as a base, many Middle East studies departments pushed an anti-American, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian agenda on students and faculty.
This "group think" required obeisance, Kramer said, to what he described as the anti-Western "post-colonialist" beliefs of people like Edward Said, the late Palestinian activist and Columbia University professor of comparative literature.
At the same time, these academics denigrated the work of prominent mainstream Middle East scholars, such as Bernard Lewis, the Princeton University professor emeritus, as too pro-Western.
Kramer wrote that these departments encouraged a worldview in which instruction about Israel is twisted and degraded, while instruction about the United States eliminates positive and patriotic references.
The negative emphasis often found in these departments is like "teaching about the United States through the lens of what happened at Abu Ghraib prison" in Baghdad, said Sarah Stern, director of the Washington office for governmental and public affairs of the American Jewish Congress, which formally protested Title VI educational practices to the U.S. Department of Education.
"And it's teaching about Israel through the lens of Deir Yassin," she said, referring to an infamous battle during Israel's War of Independence in which Jewish militias allegedly murdered Arab civilians.
In written testimony submitted to Congress in 2003, the then-director of Georgetown's national resource center on the Middle East, Barbara Stowasser, and a colleague, defended the work of Georgetown's national resource centers.
"We have had scholars working at our centers who have come to differing conclusions on an array of issues, as one would expect in an academic setting which is premised on the principle of academic freedom and the belief that rigorous research and serious intellectual discussion are important to informing both our students and others who benefit from contact with the work of our centers.
"We would make the point, however, that in the process, our centers' work has been balanced and reflective of diverse views," they wrote.
Legislation introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives this session by Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) would create an advisory board to observe the workings of Title VI and report to Congress. Academic associations oppose the legislation as an attack on free speech and academic freedom.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently passed the legislation as part of the Higher Education reauthorization bill, but it has yet to pass the full House.
In the Senate, Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) attached a different version of the legislation to the Higher Education reauthorization bill. The Senate version does not include an advisory board provision, but it does require a survey of national and defense agencies to determine what they most need from the university community, with the assumption being that it is Arabic speakers.
The Senate version also requires an objective grievance procedure if university students feel they're being discriminated against. And it requires schools to show how many students who have studied in these resource centers actually go into national security and defense fields.
The House and the Senate are now slated to try to resolve the different versions of the legislation.