Politics & Government

Duke-UNC program defends instruction on religious minorities, aspects of Christianity

The Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies provides “positive appreciation” of Christianity and Judaism and organizes or assists with programs that detail the persecution faced by religious minorities in the Middle East, UNC-Chapel Hill said in a defense of the embattled program sent to the U.S. Department of Education.

The consortium will establish an advisory board to review its program and proposed activities after the Department of Education threatened to withhold federal funding and questioned if the consortium was meeting its obligations for the funds.

“The Consortium deeply values its partnership with the Department of Education and has always been strongly committed to complying with the purposes and requirements of the Title VI program,” wrote Terry Magnuson, a vice chancellor for research at UNC-Chapel Hill, in the letter dated Sept. 20.

The Department of Education had asked the school to respond to its findings by Sept. 22. The investigation was initiated at the request of Rep. George Holding, a Raleigh Republican. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced in July that she was opening an investigation.

The consortium received a four-year grant for $235,000 per year in 2018.

In its letter, the Department of Education wrote it “is concerned that most of the Duke-UNC CMES activities supported with Title VI funds are unauthorized and that Duke-UNC CMES may not qualify.”

The school said that the Department of Education “identifies two activities that you consider to be inappropriate for Title VI funding, out of more than 100 programs that the Consortium organizes or promotes each year. Neither of these activities, as it happens, were supported with Title VI funding.”

The consortium rebutted critiques or provided information about its number of Middle East foreign language students (300), its work in science, technology, engineering and math fields, cultural and historical subjects, religious minorities and diversity of perspectives. Its letter answered questions about job placement, teacher training, events related to national security and economic stability, support for foreign language instruction, language faculty credentials, faculty rank and employment status and program monitoring.

The News & Observer received the letter in response to a public records request made to UNC.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.