With New Investigation at Duke and U.N.C., Feds Hunt Anti-Israel Bias in Higher Education

Too few of the consortium’s programs focused on “the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yadizis, Kurds, Druze, and others,” the department said.

The department also criticized the consortium’s teacher training programs for focusing on issues like “unconscious bias, serving LGBTIQ youth in schools, culture and the media, diverse books for the classroom and more.” They said that it had a “startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language.”

The administration ordered the universities to submit a revised schedule of events it planned to support and a full list of the courses it offers and the professors working in its Middle East studies program. The department also directed the consortium to demonstrate that it has “effective institutional controls” to stay compliant with the administration’s interpretation of the Higher Education Act. The universities were given until Sept. 22, just days before the department is scheduled to approve funding on Sept. 30.

A spokesman for Duke University declined to comment, referring questions to U.N.C.-Chapel Hill. A spokeswoman for the U.N.C.-Chapel Hill acknowledged receipt of the letter and promised to respond “directly to the Department of Education.”

To advocacy groups enmeshed in academic battles over Israel, the new investigation was troubling, but not surprising.

“They really want to send the message that if you want to criticize Israel, then the federal government is going to look very closely at your entire program and micromanage it to death,” said Zoha Khalili, staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a Palestinian rights group. “This letter sends a message to Middle Eastern studies programs that their continued existence depends on their willingness to toe the government line on Israel.”

Last year, the department reopened a case into anti-Jewish bias at Rutgers University that the Obama administration had closed with no finding of wrongdoing. In reconsidering the case, Mr. Marcus said the Education Department would be using a State Department definition of anti-Semitism that labels rejection of the Jewish state of Israel as anti-Jewish bigotry, suggesting that it had been adopted by his office. The Education Department has not adopted that definition.