Area-Studies Centers Are Vital but Vulnerable

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 30, 2013

The crisis in Syria continues to shock our consciences, Egypt has lurched from revolution to the Muslim Brotherhood to military rule, and Russia grows steadily more autocratic. Yet our understanding of these foreign-policy challenges, and of the world itself, is increasingly at risk, hobbled by short-sighted policies of the federal government.

As the academic year gets under way, and as Congress begins debate on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, programs designed specifically to deepen our knowledge of foreign countries are under threat because of deep cuts in federal financing by the Department of Education. For decades, these programs—known as area-studies centers—have focused on specific geographic regions of critical scholarly and policy importance. The centers have supported our understanding of parts of the world as different and as vital as East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Russia and Eastern Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The government supports area studies through the Title VI National Resource Centers, 125 of which exist on private and public university campuses across the country. Run by faculty, the centers are an integral part of their universities, offering master's-degree programs and language instruction, organizing lectures and events, and bringing together faculty and students from many departments and disciplines to focus on the many cultural, economic, political, and societal aspects of a region.

Title VI centers were initially financed at the federal level through Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (and later through Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965) in response to a crisis: the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. At the time, the government recognized the need to expand and deepen America's knowledge of strategically important areas of the world—to be able to truly understand our neighbors, both near and far away. This need still exists and is at least as pressing as ever.

These centers have been crucial to understanding the politics, societies, literatures, economics, and cultural heritage of countries from Azerbaijan to Zambia. They have supported the study of infrequently taught languages, from Albanian to Gujarati to Zulu, both by providing scholarships to university students for language study and by subsidizing the salaries of language faculty at their universities. They offer graduate fellowships, course offerings, speaker lectures, community events, and scholarly conferences, all of which have deepened our knowledge of countries and peoples we would rarely have encountered otherwise. They have ensured that whole generations of diplomats, scholars, business leaders, and other global experts and practitioners could gain the knowledge they needed.

Yet despite the enormous foreign-policy challenges of the post-9/11 era and the administration's stated commitment to quality education, the centers became a victim of budgetary quid pro quos. During budget negotiations with Congress, the Department of Education agreed to deep cuts: The National Resource Centers' federal allocation alone was nearly halved in 2011, going from $34-million in 2010 to $18-million in 2011, and shows no signs of being restored. This is a pittance in the Department of Education's discretionary budget of more than $68-billion.

The consequences of this intellectual myopia are predictable: Area-studies programs are struggling in the United States. Centers are threatened with closure, and they have shut down programs and limited language study. Within a year of the cuts—before budget reserves ran out and the full impact of the cuts was felt—a survey by the Council of National Resource Center Directors found that language classes had been canceled at 28 percent of polled institutions, and at 84 percent of campuses where language allocations were reduced, the host universities had not made up lost funds. At a time when we need to ensure that Americans can take their rightful place as citizens of the world, these budget cuts sentence new generations of university and high-school students to parochial and limited futures.

The real cost, however, will be paid in the longer term: Knowledge of foreign languages and cultures is critical to national security and economic competitiveness. For all the talk of globalization and flat worlds, pundits and policy makers are reduced to shallow and often misleading analyses and facile conclusions without a solid grounding in regional empirical realities.

It was area-studies experts and academics like Juan Cole, at the University of Michigan, who warned that the invasion of Iraq would be anything but easy, and it was area-studies faculty who were then sought by the government to provide the military with a greater understanding of on-the-ground politics, as in the Human Terrain System initiative. Others, like Quintan Wiktorowicz, are working within the administration to counter extremism and terrorism. Experts like these are a valuable resource today as the country debates American policy toward the world's hot spots.

Shocked by the Department of Education's complacency, private donors and foundations have helped, especially in ensuring that foreign languages will continue to be taught at universities. For example, here at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the former ambassador Ronald Weiser and his wife, Eileen, have provided funds for the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has supported language study. Yet such generosity cannot make up for the shortfall nationwide, and cannot effectively counter the administration's seeming willingness to hinder our understanding of the world, both now and in the future.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is a professor of political science and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.