NEW YORK – A federal program that recruits and trains people fluent in languages to help fight the war on terror is being protested by critics who don't like its association with the national security establishment.
The National Security Education Program (NSEP), created in 1992, provides grants to undergraduate and graduate students to travel abroad and study languages and cultures critical to U.S. national security. Students travel to places like Russia, Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Vietnam, Turkey, Cuba, Croatia, Israel, the Czech Republic, Thailand, India and Kazakhstan.
In return, students are asked to make a "good faith" effort to find a national security-related job with the government after graduation. And so far, so good, according to officials.
"There's tremendous support for this program," said NSEP Director Robert Slater. "There's a greater, renewed appreciation for the kinds of issues we're addressing.
Slater said the program has become "an important source of hiring," for federal national security jobs. Undergraduate NSEP applications are up more than 50 percent from 2001, he said, with a corresponding 33 percent hike in graduate applicants.
But the initiative has been slammed by academic groups who say it puts American students at risk because the NSEP and its recent offshoot, the National Flagship Language Initiative -- Pilot Program, are part of the Defense Department.
Groups like the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), African American Association and the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) have long protested NSEP -- they don't call it a boycott -- and want it folded into the Education Department. The groups also oppose members of intelligence agencies such as the CIA serving on the NSEP board.
"We believe it is essential to maintain the administrative independence of such programs from government agencies involved in national security," the MESA Board of Directors said in a statement approved in April.
"There's a common consensus that researchers who have to admit or divulge where their funding comes from might be put in jeopardy," if that money comes from the Defense Department, said Reid Reading, executive director of the LASA at the University of Pittsburgh.
Money that was identified "as coming from security and defense has caused problems in the past," claimed Amy Newhall, executive director of the MESA at the University of Arizona.
But program advocates say running the program out of the Defense Department simply makes sense, and insist that's the best way to fully train the nation's next generation of national security experts.
"In the best of all possible worlds ... we probably wouldn't lose anything by having a program like this run in the Department of Education," said Norm Peterson, assistant vice provost for international education at Montana State University at Bozeman, which has many student recipients of NSEP grants. "But that's not the way this program can operate."
NSEP officials said the 2,500 students they have sent abroad have been well prepared and are in no way involved in any intelligence-gathering activities. In fact, they note, U.S. law bans the use of NSEP funds for intelligence gathering.
Peterson said the effects of the boycott are felt mostly on specific campuses. But despite reports that some faculty members are actively advising students to avoid the NSEP, the group's critics say there is no pressure on students or faculty to not take part.
Some academic groups say they simply don’t advertise the program, and don't do anything overt to dissuade participation in NSEP.
"How the student chooses is always an individual choice," Newhall said. "You can't say professors do anything but make sure students are fully informed, because we know that sometimes people don't read the fine print on anything."
But despite the critics, Peterson said recruitment is picking up. And other NSEP advocates dismissed the critics of those as a "small vocal minority."
Students who have signed up for NSEP programs said they would not be deterred from continuing their studies.
"Sure, there's some places that probably aren't as safe, but it's just like whether you're traveling anywhere," said Ilan Goodman, a senior history and Judaic studies major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Goodman had planned to travel to Israel to study under an NSEP scholarship, but was reassigned to Turkey because of the recent violence in the Middle East.
"We think in the current environment, the nation needs more people who are skilled and knowledgeable at the native level of familiarity with foreign cultures and foreign languages," said Terry Hartle, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education -- which strongly supports the program.
"If you are really committed to some languages such as Arabic or Pashtun or other languages that have become much more important to our homeland security or national security in the last 15 months, this is a great way to do that."