U.S. Department of Education complains that the programs convey "a considerable emphasis placed on the understanding of the positive aspects of Islam."
The United States University of North Carolina and Duke University had until Sunday to submit information to the Trump administration about the two schools' Consortium for Middle East Studies after the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) accused the joint program of biased information about Christianity and Judaism.
The DOE complained in a letter sent in June to the universities that "there is a 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."
The government agency demanded the universities to present an exhaustive list of the events they are going to support throughout the year and a list of all the courses they are proposing.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos decided to investigate the programs’ course contents in June after participation in March to a conference called "Conflict Over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities."
"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," Zoha Khalili, staff attorney at Palestinian rights group Palestine Legal told the New York Times.
DeVos is sending "a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel," the lawyer explained.
While the education secretary said she wanted to verify if both universities were not “improperly using” the US$235,000 received from the federal government to encourage "radical anti-Israel bias."
The programs provided by the UNC and Duke teach Middle Eastern languages, history, and geopolitics, and host events centered on the region’s culture, which is predominantly Muslim, the department of education added in the letter that the programs should concentrate on "foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States."
Duke declined to comment, however, the UNC confirmed the reception of the letter and told the New York Times it was ready to collaborate with the department, providing full information on its programs.
If the DOE considers them to be insufficiently focused on Christianity and Judaism, the universities will risk the loss of thousands of dollars in federal grants.
The DOE’s action, which did not surprise advocacy groups involved in activism over Israel’s policies, comes at a time when attacks on free speech in college campuses have increased, as the department under the management of DeVos has become more and more hawkish on so-called "anti-Israel bias" in higher education.