Big Brother in Area Studies

With the passage of the International Studies in Higher Education Act of 2003 in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, America inched closer to surrendering one of its fundamental ideals: freedom of thought.

Currently under consideration in the Senate, one portion of the bill, also known as H.R. 3077, authorizes an “International Advisory Board” to review all funds given to area studies centers under the Higher Education Act. The Board, unelected officials accountable to no one, would be empowered to “monitor, apprise and evaluate the activities of grant recipients,” address ways the program could “reflect national needs related to homeland security” and assure that the area studies centers “reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views.” Only strong opposition defeated clauses allowing the board to review syllabi and course materials, but those provisions could make it into the final version of the bill.

Why do grant recipients need to be monitored? They do not need to be, as they have nothing to hide. All of their money that comes from the government is spent transparently, and the only possible purpose for this board is to pressure universities into embracing a neo-conservative agenda at the risk of losing their funding. That academic research should be subjugated to the politically driven needs of “homeland security” is something out of a bad dream. The blatant attempt to affect hiring and tenure under the guise of promoting “diverse perspectives” is no more than a gross perversion of an otherwise laudable goal. Taken together, these measures would replace good research with political propaganda.

While this may be an academic issue, it isn’t hypothetical for Harvard students. The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) receives $275,000 under the Higher Education Act, 15 percent of its annual budget, which pays for the salaries of instructors, Middle Eastern language courses, graduate teaching fellowships, conferences and CMES’s outreach program which organizes workshops and lecture courses for area schools and collects a library of books and video tapes.

“Without the funding, our outreach program would disappear,” said Assistant Director of CMES Susan M. Kahn. CMES would accept fewer graduate students into its program. Arabic language programs would not disappear, but expenditures would be cut back.

“Harvard has enough endowed funds to teach the three languages [Arabic, Persian and Turkish] but we would cut back the level of strength and variety” without government money, said CMES Director Cemal Kafadar.

The National Resource Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies also receives roughly $626,000 annually from the Higher Education Act, of which the majority funds Foreign Language Fellowships and the rest goes to material acquisitions and language programs. Ten percent of the budget of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and 30 percent of the Slavic language publications acquisition budget comes from these funds.

The Asia Center receives $439,000 annually from the Higher Education Act, which goes to analogous programs, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies currently receives an average of $433,333 a year.

If Harvard’s area studies centers refuse to accept this oversight, they will lose valuable resources; but accepting the authority of an independent, partisan review board would have even graver consequences. Harvard faculty in area studies might even leave rather than subject themselves to political manipulation or coercion.

In any event, the legislation is likely to destroy the academic atmosphere of openness and honesty. “No academic would submit to this scrutiny,” said Kahn. “It is contrary to deep thinking.”

Area studies centers, as they currently exist, are a vital part of American scholarship. They provide extra funding for research into fields that are geopolitically significant, but not traditional foci of academic interest. By enabling interested scholars to pursue research in these areas and cultures, the nation comes to possess an objective, broad-based knowledge of the regions in question. Politicizing these scholars and forcing them to rubberstamp political faits accomplis would make their advice useless. Politicians already have their yes-men; academics serve a different purpose.

But the issue of perceiving the nation’s interest is not as important as the attack on our nation’s principles. Our proud belief in freedom of speech, of religion and of assembly, reflects a deep respect for the pursuit of truth through free exchange. Propaganda and noble lies may be good enough for other countries, but democracies demand the truth. Treating the truth as a commodity that can be bought and sold with research funding, as though it were so many head of cattle, is a direct assault on our most fundamental principles.

Students, faculty and alumni, whether from the left, right or center should lay aside differences in ideology and defend academic freedom, a tenet that we all support. Write your senator to explain how this proposal hampers academics and hurts the nation. If it becomes enacted as law, another American tradition will have been destroyed by petty partisan rivalries.

Joseph T. Scarry ’07 lives in Grays Hall.