MESA Board Statement regarding National Flagship Language Initiative - Pilot Program (NFLI-P)

Re: National Flagship Language Initiative – Pilot Program (NFLI-P)
Approved at the spring board meeting on April 27, 2002; revised April 26, 2003

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) is concerned about the potential negative consequences of aspects of the recently announced National Flagship Language Initiative – Pilot Program (NFLI-P), under the National Security Education Program (NSEP) authorized by Congress in 1991. The NFLI-P institutional grants were announced on April 1, 2002, with the closing date for applications from U.S. universities stipulated as May 15, 2002.

We fully endorse the most broadly defined aim of the program, “to address the need to increase the ability of Americans to communicate and compete globally by knowing the languages and cultures of other countries.” (NFLC-P Advanced Language Institutional Grants, Application Guidelines, Section A: Program Guidelines, www.nflc.org/flagship/application). We believe that such a goal requires commitment to a broad range of educational programs in the humanities and social sciences, including but not limited to language acquisition. We have and will continue to support fully programs administered through the U.S. Department of Education, which we believe is the appropriate governmental entity to implement educational programs established by acts of Congress. At the same time, we have (1992, 1995) noted our strong reservations concerning the decision to locate the NSEP administration in the Department of Defense and the involvement of the CIA on the Board that oversees the NSEP. We believe it is essential to maintain the administrative independence of such programs from government agencies involved in national security.

While MESA welcomes enhanced attention to language-study programs, we are uneasy about the directed goals of NFLI-P, and in particular the direct link that it envisions between academic programs and government employment. The program guidelines for the NFLI-P note that the success of this program will “depend in large measure on the capability of U.S. higher education to supply to the U.S. government graduates from across disciplines and who are proficient in critical languages.” NSEP was instituted specifically to address the personnel needs of federal agencies responsible for national security. Students accepting NSEP fellowships have a national service obligation. We regard this as a matter of individual choice and have urged simply that students be made fully aware of their contractual obligations under the program. However, we are apprehensive that the proposed establishment of university programs will link all participating students by association with Defense Department language study funding through the institutional grants that NFLI-P has announced.

Scholars wishing to carry out academic research, language training, collaborative work with colleagues outside of the U.S., and other professional activities in the Middle East and North Africa already face daunting governmental and extra-governmental obstacles. Recent political events have only increased the obstacles and risks to U.S. citizens and residents who carry out academic work overseas. A government-funded program that emphasizes cooperation between the U.S. academy and government agencies responsible for intelligence and defense will increase the difficulties and dangers of such academic activities, and may foster the already widespread impression that academic researchers from the United States are directly involved in government activities. This may discourage foreign colleagues from collaboration with Americans in scholarly projects. Ultimately, such a program may actually undermine the research and teaching of languages, histories and culture that area studies programs in U.S. universities strive to advance.

Furthermore, if the full-fledged NFLI-P is funded and established in years to come, according to the description of the Pilot Program, participating universities “must be ready and able to accept those students, as well as U.S. government personnel, who may not be matriculants or degree seekers.” While we are in favor of the expansion of second-language learning in the U.S. educational system, we view with alarm this implication of direct government participation in deciding who may be admitted to university programs.

We believe that “national security” should be broadly defined and that it should include the continued vitality and academic independence of this country’s higher education system. We urge that funding for second-language acquisition, like other educational programs, be administered through the Department of Education. We deplore the channeling of funds for education through defense or intelligence agencies.

The MESA Board of Directors recognizes the urgency of developing a more appropriate institutional location and structure of governance for NFLI-P, one which will better protect the interests of the people whom the program is intended to support. It has therefore resolved to work actively with other concerned organizations to effect the desired changes.

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