Jay Schalin of the Martin Center looks into a controversy involving federal funding of higher education.

A letter from the federal Department of Education has sparked yet another controversy on the campuses of Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This time, the issue is about how to honor the intentions of donors, with the donor being the federal government instead of a private individual or corporation.

The U.S. Department of Education’s letter expressed concern about whether the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies is fulfilling the requirements of a grant provided under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. The Consortium is the union of the Duke Middle East Center and the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies; the grant is for $235,000 for each of four years from 2018 to 2021.

Title VI of the Higher Education Act defines a highly specific set of grants intended “to protect the security, stability, and economic vitality of the United States by teaching American students the foreign languages and cultural competencies required to develop a pool of experts to meet our national needs.” Grants are given to university Middle East studies centers “for purposes of establishing, strengthening, and operating comprehensive foreign language and area or international studies centers and programs.”

And to be sure, the ED letter is not ending the grant—it merely criticizes how the Consortium has used the funds so far.

Two opposing views about the letter have emerged. One of them, held by supporters of the Consortium, is that the letter poses a new and ominous threat to academic freedom by the Trump administration.

The other is that the federal government is finally exercising proper oversight over the way academia handles its largesse.