In 1957, the Soviet Union announced the launch of Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite, bringing global attention to the emergence of sophisticated technologies and international security threats that came to characterize the Cold War period.
One year after the proverbial launch of the Cold War-- recognizing the relative dearth of regional expertise-- the U.S. government, through Title VI of the National Defense Education Act, established foreign language and area studies programs at American universities such as Harvard, Columbia and Berkeley. The regional studies centers of NDEA aimed to guarantee experts of sufficient quality and quantity to meet U.S. national security needs.
Today, at the height of the global war on terror, those same regional studies centers designed to develop the newest generation of international expertise to ensure our national security are failing to produce graduates willing to work for or within the government.
Despite the $120 million of federal money annually allocated by Title VI of the Higher Education Act (the successor to the NDEA of 1958) to the regional studies centers, law enforcement agencies and intelligence communities are stuck outsourcing positions such as translators to foreign nationals of uncertain reliability. The worry of such a practice, of course, is that national security can easily be compromised—and indeed it has. Just this past October, for example, an Arabic translator for the Army was arrested for allegedly assisting Iraqi insurgents by stealing classified documents from the Army.
Yet, even putting aside the question of whether an outsourced expert may experience a clash of loyalties at some point, there is still a void of Arabic translators: the New York Times last year reported that 120,000 hours of pre-9/11 intelligence “chatter” remains untranslated from Arabic.
Unfortunately, the situation with these federally funded regional studies centers is unlike the case of Princeton Unversity’s Woodrow Wilson School, which is involved in a lawsuit with the private financial support of the program. The donors, the heirs to the Robertson family who founded the center, argue that Woody-Woo (as it is affectionately named) has not met its mission of preparing students for government service, as too few of its graduates take positions in government. In fact, they are producing more iBankers, consultants, journalists and future officials for governments other than that of the United States'.
In the case of the federally funded regional studies centers, the government cannot just yank their funding, like the Robertson heirs threaten to do with their $558 million grant.
With the consistent flow of federal money running into these regional studies centers, which were developed to produce international experts for the needs of our national security, how is it possible that we still experience a dearth of experts willing to support the war effort and help protect this nation? With 70 percent of Ph.Ds being earned at Middle Eastern studies centers, how can the United States government afford to do without this talent?
Some critics have suggested that the liberal, anti-government lean of campus politics discourages students from entering government service. Regardless of why students are choosing not to put their expertise to work for the government, the fact remains that these centers are failing to produce the national security analysts they were built to cultivate.
In this post-9/11 world, the U.S. cannot afford to have Title VI produce Ph.Ds merely for the academic job market. The U.S. has other needs for these intellectual, international experts.
One solution includes legislation proposed by Rep. Patrick Tiberi, R-Ohio, and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. Tiberi has proposed H.R. 509, which was recently added as an amendment to Boehner’s H.R. 609. H.R. 609 broadly deals with the Higher Education Act of 1965, whereas H.R. 509 addresses only Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 -- the regional studies centers.
Addressing the distressing lack of national security personnel being graduated from these regional studies centers, the proposed amendment to Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965 recommends the establishment of an international higher education advisory board “to ensure that government-funded programs reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs.”
The primary function of the advisory board is to recommend ways “to improve programs…to better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.”
However, it is critical to note that the bill clearly states that the board is not authorized to “mandate, direct, or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum, or program of instruction.”
It is merely authorized to study, appraise and evaluate a sample of program activities, including curriculum.
Critics of such amendments fear that the true motivation for the government’s involvement in the regional studies centers is not national security needs, but rather fear of intellectual criticism of their own foreign policy. They fear a "Big Brother" in the universities.
However, this criticism is misguided. First, the legislation is very particular in establishing that the board cannot mandate curriculum. It prompts the analysis that, perhaps, it is the academians who are more concerned with criticism of their classroom policy than the government is concerned with criticism of its foreign policy.
Secondly, because the regional studies centers are federally funded, such an advisory board is justified. It is permissible to establish accountability at the centers because they use taxpayer money.
Fortunately, there are private donors, like the Robertson’s children who support the Woodrow Wilson School, who are civic minded enough to demand that their money be spent for the original purpose of these institutions: to develop intellectuals to serve the nation. For the federally funded universities of the regional studies centers, we must rely on innovative legislation.
Olivia Albrecht is the John Tower National Security Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Ms. Albrecht researches international relations and national security issues, with a focus on the ‘Islamofascist’ phenomenon. Albrecht previously worked for the Pentagon (Non-Proliferation Policy) and with the Heritage Foundation, and is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy.