The U.S. government should not be able to dictate the terms of a university’s curriculum to advance its agenda. But the Trump administration recently attempted to do just that when it threatened to end federal support for Duke University (N.C.) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) jointly-run Middle Eastern studies center

A letter from the Department of Education (DoED) to the universities alleged a “lack of balance” in their curriculum, and the DoED warned that it would revoke grant funding if the consortium continued to favor Islam over Judaism and Christianity. While the government has an interest in assuring that grant money is used correctly, the DoED’s threats are unjustified intrusions into academic freedom. Worse, they are a part of a broader anti-Muslim pattern in the Trump administration.

The joint program is partially funded through the Title VI grant, which supports foreign language or international studies programs that support national security. The DoED’s letter alleged that most of the consortiums’ activities did not qualify for federal funding under these standards. As a result, the government has demanded that the consortium provide a “revised schedule of activities,” accompanied with explanations as to how each “actively promotes language learning” and “advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.” 

Conveniently, these demands misconstrue the legal provision that grant funding should foster the “full understanding” of the regions in question. The letter mentioned the “full understanding” clause only to criticize the consortium’s alleged failure to represent religious minority groups like Kurds, Bahais, Yazidis and the Druze. 

But if learning about these small minority groups is necessary to fully understand the region, why aren’t topics like Islamic intellectual history and mainstream film also important? Without any clear rule for what constitutes a “full understanding,” the government’s letter reads as both narrow and arbitrary.

The government’s attempts to pressure Duke and UNC to limit their programming in this way violates the schools’ basic academic freedom. If the government had a problem with funding classes on Middle Eastern film or research projects like “Radical Love: Teachings from Islamic Mystical Tradition” as the letter claims, the DoED could have denied the consortiums’ original grant requests. Instead, Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education is now attempting to stifle intellectual discourse through retroactive conditions for federal support based on a self-servingly limited interpretation of Title VI. 

The intrusion could result in a chilling effect on academic freedom. Karen Anderson, the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, argued that the letter “represents a significant threat to any academic program that fails to toe the line on the government’s anti-Muslim agenda.” Unless the government can provide more coherent reasons to limit Title VI funds, schools should not give in to the administration’s threats.

The DoED’s letter is yet another bad-faith step in the Trump administration’s anti-Islamic agenda. Anderson also stated that the DoED’s actions were an attempt to “inject [the administration’s] long pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination into our universities.” From Trump’s travel ban, which was effectively a Muslim ban, to his appointment of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has peddled “clash of civilization” rhetoric about Muslims and Christians, the administration has routinely embraced an unfair stance on Islam.

Additionally, as UNC’s response to the government noted, the consortium has organized “numerous programs” on the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. Both schools have also hosted specific events exploring Judaism and Christianity in the Middle East, so it’s clear in this case that the government has advanced a false narrative to pursue its anti-Muslim agenda. 

That said, opposition to the consortium’s activities did not magically appear. Continued government support only became a question after after U.S. Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) requested that DeVos’ Department of Education investigate anti-Israel bias at one of the consortium’s events. The event featured an anti-Semitic rapper, which did merit a federal response. Still, it does not justify the letter’s excessive demands and certainly does not justify cuts to the program’s funding. 

The Trump administration should not be able to impose its prejudiced agenda upon America’s universities, and schools that receive Title VI support should not be intimidated by the administration’s bluster.

The Editorial Board is composed of Zach Ball, Jacob Busch, Andrew Kliewer, Boris Niyonzima, Shreya Pabbaraju and Kimia Tabatabaei.