Campus oversight passes Senate as review effort scores a victory

Sarah Stern of AJCongress is an advocate for establishing a government procedure to address claims of anti-Israel bias and anti-Semitism on university campuses.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 1 (JTA) — The effort by some Jewish groups to establish a government review procedure for claims of anti-Israel bias at universities scored a victory in the U.S. Senate, but at the expense of a mechanism some advocates say is crucial to addressing campus anti-Semitism.

The Senate passed legislation earlier this month that would require the Department of Education to consult with an array of U.S. security and diplomatic agencies before renewing grants to institutes of higher learning.

Advocates say the new language reinvigorates the intent of Title VI, education legislation passed in 1958 that launched federal funding for universities. At the time, Congress wanted to establish a corps of experts on foreign affairs among diplomats and defense analysts.

The U.S. government agencies “shall provide information to the Secretary regarding how the entities utilize expertise and resources provided by grantees under this title,” says the legislation passed Nov. 3 by the Senate. “The Secretary shall take into account such recommendations and information when requesting applications for funding under this title, and shall make available to applicants a list of areas identified as areas of national need.”

Critics of the Middle East studies establishment — chief among them Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy — said universities had failed the original intent of Title VI when their experts failed to predict the rise of Islamism and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

If it passes the U.S. House of Representatives, the language would represent a necessary correction to how Title VI funds are applied, Kramer said.

“None of this is in the existing Title VI language, and its inclusion is a major victory for critics of Title VI bias,” said Kramer, whose post-Sept. 11 book, “Ivory Towers on Sand,” helped spur the Title VI reform movement. The Senate language also requires universities, in applications for Title VI funds, to explain how their programs would “reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions and international affairs” and how they would resolve disputes.

Others were concerned that the Senate language omitted another monitoring mechanism included in a separate House bill. That bill would have set up an advisory board that would “result in the growth and development of such programs at the post-secondary education level that will reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views on world regions.”

The advisory board would have more directly addressed the concerns of Jewish groups than the Senate review procedures, according to its advocates. The emphasis on “diverse perspectives,” as it now stands is weighted to the application process, and not to the review process, meaning universities could be judged according to their intentions and not results.

The Senate bill grants security agencies review powers, advocates of the advisory board said, but although that would realign Title VI grants with its framers’ intent, it would do little to alleviate the discomfort Jewish and pro-Israel students feel on campus.

Instead of an advisory board, the Senate bill would allow Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to suspend federal funding for a university for 60 days if she deems a bias complaint serious enough. She also would be authorized to take such complaints into account when renewing grants to universities.

Sarah Stern, the American Jewish Congress’ director of governmental affairs, had advocated for the advisory board. She saw it as a tool that might help alleviate what she said is a campus atmosphere that allows some professors to use Middle East studies to peddle anti-Semitism.

“There are people who can use all the tricks of the trade in scholarship to wrap around an ancient prejudice,” she said.

A review procedure with teeth would encourage debate, not inhibit it, she said.

“Any intellectually honest person with integrity would say, ‘Wait a minute, there is another side here,’ ” she said.

There was broad community support for language in the bill that would not allow the Education Department to “mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.” Such language, it was thought, would effectively counter critics who say the legislation impedes academic liberty.

Ultimately, Stern said, the Senate language represented a massive improvement, and she would recommend it. One doesn’t always get “the best of all possible worlds,” she said.

The Zionist Organization of America, another group advocating review procedures, said removing the advisory board undermined the bill’s intent. “There should be something in there that requires a balance of viewpoints,” said Susan Tuchman, director of the ZOA’s Center of Law and Justice. “It’s not enough to ensure that appropriate changes are made.”

Others said the bill would fail to garner support if it included the advisory board. Keeping in the advisory board, would represent a Pyrrhic victory if it scares legislators away from supporting it, they said.

Lois Waldman, co-director of the AJCongress’ Commission for Law and Social Action, ultimately advised against its inclusion, with Stern’s assent. “It is not likely that Senators Clinton, Kennedy and even some senators with many universities in their districts would permit the advisory board language to remain,” Waldman said in an internal memo to Stern and others, referring to Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), two Democratic leaders on education issues.

The “language without the advisory board is an improvement, making the bill easier to enact, and we should lobby for it. If the bill passes in the current Senate form, we should declare victory,” she wrote.

Complicating matters was the fact that the language was buried in the Senate’s massive Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005, a bill that deals mostly with budget cutting to offset the costs of war and hurricane recovery. It originally appeared in a separate Senate bill that dealt more particularly with higher education funding.

Jewish officials were caught off guard by its inclusion in the omnibus bill and some only learned of it because of JTA questions.

They were divided, however, on what that meant. Some Jewish lobbyists said they understood the intent was to hurdle parliamentary obstacles the original Senate billed faced.

The American Jewish Committee welcomed the bill.

“We strongly and wholeheartedly endorse the Senate legislation,” said Debra Feuer, the AJCommittee’s special projects counselor. “We think it is an excellent step at reforming Title VI.”

Feuer also said that this law does not focus on providing protection against anti-Semitism on campus.

“This bill provides much needed reform of the federal funding program for universities’ international affairs studies,” she said. “This addresses the lack of diverse perspectives in Title VI centers. On the Middle East studies side, centers have tended to be anti-American and anti-Israeli.”

By contrast, those who still want an advisory board included in the current legislation said the Senate bill blindsided them. Should the Senate bill survive a House-Senate conference likely to take place before Christmas break, they said, legislators likely would rebuff any further lobbying on the matter.

But Feuer instead predicted that the legislation would set the stage for further oversight, should Title VI centers still exhibit anti-American and anti-Israel bias.

“It should go a very large way to helping reform how Title VI is administered,” she said. “Should it not achieve the result, it lays the groundwork for the Congress to come back and set up oversight.”

It’s not clear which senator inserted the language during the lengthy process of composing an omnibus bill, but it would have had to pass Republican muster. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate’s Budget Committee, initiated the bill, and it passed 52-47, largely along party lines.

Resistance to some of the proposed reforms came to the fore when three Jewish groups testified on the matter in mid-November before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, encountering tough questions from the more conservative commissioners.

The commission has no enforcement powers, but its recommendations would have moral force in Washington.

Citing a litany of complaints from Jewish students across the country, Stern of the AJCongress, Tuchman of ZOA and Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, painted a picture of a pervasively hostile environment.

“Anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism are systemic ideologies in higher education,” Tobin said.

Other groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the AJCommittee, agree that there’s a problem but say progress is being made.

“Institutional anti-Semitism, discrimination and quotas against Jewish students are largely a thing of the past,” the ADL said in written testimony to the Commission on Civil Rights.

The witnesses got into a sometimes-testy exchange with the commissioners on the role of government in policing campuses. Significantly, the toughest questions came from commissioners most closely associated with the Bush administration, which recently revamped the commission to more closely reflect its own conservative values.

“I am extremely nervous about administrative oversight on university campuses,” said Abigail Thernstrom, the commission’s vice chairwoman. “You do not want administrators waking into classrooms and deciding what a professor is teaching is acceptable or unacceptable.”

Tobin said the threat of withdrawing federal funding would be a last resort meant to spur universities into using tools already at their disposal — for instance, increasing the involvement of trustees in hiring and firing decisions.