Washington (CNN)The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for the Education Department to rescind its threat to revoke a university’s Middle East studies program’s federal funding over allegations including that its curriculum fails to address the plight of the region’s Christians and Jews.
The group’s letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos slammed the department’s notice to Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which jointly run the Consortium for Middle East Studies, accusing the program of lacking balance. The program receives funding under Title VI and is meant for cultural and language programs designed to develop experts.”The ACLU strongly urges the Department to respond to this letter confirming that the Department has ended its investigation of the Consortium’s programming and will refrain from launching future investigations of Title VI funding recipients motivated not by any governing statute but rather by the Administration’s own ideological standards,” the ACLU wrote.Angela Morabito, the department’s press secretary, called the ACLU’s bigotry accusations “absurd,” arguing that “real bigotry would be ignoring or dismissing the existence of religious minorities as immaterial to a full understanding of the region.””A comprehensive study of the Middle East is not anti-Muslim or pro-any other group. It’s just that: comprehensive,” she told CNN in a statement later Friday.Read MoreThe original letter from Assistant Secretary Robert King argued that the program offers “few, if any, programs focused on the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others.” It also says that in materials for elementary and secondary students and teachers, “there is a considerable emphasis placed on … understanding 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.” King also accused the program of failing to adequately prioritize language instruction.The ACLU argues that such concern “suggests that the Department’s investigation is motivated by its displeasure with the messages conveyed by the program’s curriculum. It also raises concerns that the Department is injecting the current presidential administration’s long pattern of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination into the Title VI funding process.” Citing a response letter from UNC demonstrating the program’s language enrollment, the ACLU argues that “nothing in the statutes or regulations governing the Title VI program at issue, however, requires funding recipients to de-emphasize the ‘positive aspects of Islam’ to the Department’s satisfaction.”ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane slammed the department’s criticism as unfounded.”The administration’s overzealous censorship efforts undermine academic freedom and have no factual or legal basis,” she said in a statement. “The administration should be focused on rooting out the deep-seated anti-Muslim bigotry within its own ranks rather than trampling on the academic freedom of our colleges and universities.”The group also filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for records pertaining to the program and the department’s “review of the Consortium’s eligibility for federal funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, and DOE communications regarding similar investigations of funding eligibility for other Title VI programs.”