By Eric J. Schmidt
While a PhD student in ethnomusicology, I came to appreciate the value of federal funding in international education in myriad ways. First, there were experiences of absence, moments of panic and loss: In a grant-writing seminar, my colleagues and I lamented the constrained funding availability for dissertation fieldwork in our discipline; Fulbright-Hays funding was under threat and the Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad (DDRA) proposal scoring system was recently revised to favor research in certain fields like development, making it harder for many humanities and arts projects to be competitive. Midway through my graduate studies, my home institution’s African Studies Center also lost its Title VI funding as a National Resource Center (NRC) and Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship-granting institution. My goal of studying Hausa language as a FLAS Fellow seemed to evaporate. Yet while this posed serious challenges to my pursuit of rigorous research, this crisis taught me the significance of funding coming from federal sources: I was able to piece together funding for summer language study through FLAS awards administered by other universities because the US Department of Education mandates that FLAS-granting institutions consider proposals by students from around the country.
Since completing my PhD last year and joining the Boston University African Studies Center, where I manage Title VI programs, I’ve had the opportunity to see just how much can be achieved by robust, sustained funding of these programs. Students are better equipped to study less commonly taught languages to high levels of proficiency, and to move competently and confidently in the sociocultural settings in which these languages are spoken. This results in stronger research that does not rely solely on colonial languages—research that we know produces skewed, incomplete, or even wholly inaccurate knowledge. Thus, when the ASA announced its travel awards for members to participate in the Coalition for International Education’s advocacy event on March 13 and 14, I jumped at the opportunity to take action.
The CIE event took place in Washington, DC the same week as the National Humanities Alliance’s advocacy push. Things kicked off on March 13 with a briefing at George Washington University. Miriam A. Kazanjian, who leads CIE, introduced participants to the dynamics of Congressional legislation that authorizes and funds Fulbright-Hays and Title VI. These include the Fulbright-Hays DDRA, Group Projects Abroad (GPA), and Seminars Abroad (SA) overseas programs authorized by the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act; and the Title VI NRC, FLAS, Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language (UISFL), International Research and Studies (IRS), Language Resource Center (LRC), American Overseas Research Center (AORC), and Centers for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) programs authorized under the Higher Education Act. We also heard from university federal relations officers, a Congressional staffer with experience in higher education appropriations, and others who provided insight on the ins and outs of the higher education funding and authorization processes in Congress.
One of the most striking things was Miriam’s presentation of funding levels for these programs over time. President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget request—released on the Monday just preceding the CIE advocacy event—proposes completely eliminating funding for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays for the third year in a row. While this was an unsurprising proposal given the president’s record of xenophobia, part of the rationale for this change stated in the budget request was that foreign language and international education programs are matters of national security, and that they are reproduced by State and Defense Department programs. (This is untrue: as we argued in our meetings, these are highly complementary programs, but Title VI and Fulbright-Hays establish year-round infrastructure and resources for international education that other programs often only set up during the summer.) Even before the Trump Administration, however, funding for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays had been seriously weakened. Their combined budgets were cut from $125.9 million in FY 2010 to $75.8m in FY 2011, and since FY 2014 have held steady at $72.2m ($65.1m for Title VI and $7.1m for Fulbright-Hays)—less than 60% of the FY 2010 level. In light of broad bipartisan support for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays and the changed balance of Congressional power after the 2018 midterm election, CIE felt that now is the right time to push for restoring funding for these programs.
Thus, with over 90 participants from 22 states and the District of Columbia representing 38 higher education institutions, my fellow advocates and I visited over 100 Congressional offices on the second day of the advocacy event to propose $106.1 million in funding for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays. This sum not only takes an important step towards restoring FY 2010 levels, but also represents the amount of funds that would have allowed the Department of Education to finance all quality, highly “fundable” proposals for Title VI and Fulbright-Hays support submitted in 2018. We encouraged members of Congress to include this sum in their proposals to the House Appropriations Subcommittees dealing with Health, Labor, Human Services, and Education, and to sign a Dear Colleague letter circulated by Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Don Young (R-AK) to encourage other members to support the request. Additionally, we encouraged House members to support the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which funds Title VI; in the Senate, we asked for support for Senate bill S.342, the “Advancing International and Foreign Language Education Act” cosponsored by Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
Many of us traveled in teams consisting of faculty and staff from area studies centers as well as federal relations officers from higher education institutions, setting up several meetings with Congressional staff over the course of the day. As I was the sole representative of a Massachusetts Title VI center to participate, I was fortunate to be supported by federal relations teams from Boston University and Harvard University, as well as by Melissa A. Torres, President and CEO of The Forum on Education Abroad. Jennifer Grodsky, Director of Federal Relations at BU, helped coordinate our meetings, while Emily Burlij (Associate Director of Federal Relations, BU), Peter DeYoe (Assistant Director for Legislative Affairs, Harvard), and Jon Groteboer (Director of Federal Relations, Harvard) joined me and Melissa on Capitol Hill. We met with staff for Sen. Ed Markey and Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Bill Keating, Lori Trahan, and Katherine Clark; at our meeting at Rep. Trahan’s office, we were also joined by Katy Button, Associate Vice President of Federal Relations at Georgetown University, as Rep. Trahan is a Georgetown alum.
Massachusetts delegation for the CIE advocacy event outside the office of Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA7), with (L-R): Peter DeYoe, Emily Burlij, Melissa A. Torres, Dennis E. Barrett (Legislative Correspondent for Rep. Pressley), Eric J. Schmidt, and Jon Groteboer
For those like me who have limited or no previous experience advocating on the Hill, having support from federal relations officers or other experienced hands can be a huge asset—not only for their aid in setting up appointments with staff but also for their ability to speak fluently on Congressional protocols during meetings. Their presence helped me to speak confidently on my international education program expertise without feeling nervous about my comparative unfamiliarity with the finer logistics of Congressional authorizations and appropriations. While our general goals for each meeting were similar—to obtain commitments to sign the Dear Colleague letters, promote the $106.1m budget request, and support the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—each session also required some specific tailoring. Some of the staff, particularly those working with freshman members of Congress, needed a full briefing on the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs, and thus our meetings ran longer. Others are veterans of the higher education appropriations and authorization processes, and in those cases our meetings took only a few minutes.
We tailored our pitch to connect with each Representative’s interests and leadership roles in Congress: for Rep. Pressley, an outspoken advocate for underserved communities who is concerned with the student debt crisis, we emphasized the ways in which FLAS fellowships make higher education more affordable and how NRCs support K-12 schools, community colleges, and minority-serving institutions through their outreach programs; for Sen. Markey and Reps. Keating and Trahan, who work on foreign affairs, security, and armed services issues, we emphasized how these programs support the language and cultural competencies needed by our diplomatic and military personnel; and for Rep. Clark, who is part of the House Democratic party leadership and serves on the House Appropriations Committee, we asked for her commitment to including our budget request in the FY20 appropriations bill. At our briefing before the meetings on Capitol Hill, CIE provided us with a number of handouts to deliver to Congressional staff that outlined in detail the value of Title VI and Fulbright-Hays. In addition, I prepared a handout specifically on Boston University’s African Studies Center, highlighting some of the impact that we’ve had through Title VI funds. One thing that seemed particularly effective was a map I included, which documented all of the communities in Massachusetts to which our Outreach Program had distributed materials for teaching about Africa.
On the Monday following the Advocacy Event, I joined my fellow participants in a conference call organized by CIE, where each state’s coalition was able to report on the results of their meetings. In a sign of broad bipartisan support, there were a total of 106 signatories for the House Dear Colleague letter, the highest level in recent years since CIE began organizing its Advocacy Days. Indeed, some participants reported their pleasant surprise at the receptiveness that some Congressional staff showed regarding international education funding, particularly among Republicans. One caller mentioned, for example, that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) was quite supportive of Title VI because he had worked at Brigham Young University’s Whitmore Global Management Center, a Title VI Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER).
These programs are not the end-all and be-all of international education or foreign language training in the US, and many of our colleagues voice legitimate concerns about the Cold War-era roots of area studies programs like Title VI. But, especially in an environment of growing nativist xenophobia at home, it is imperative that we speak up for every program we can that cultivates crucial linguistic competencies and cultural sensitivities for a world that will remain deeply interconnected—no matter the political and physical barriers that may be erected. Conviction in these values can strengthen us for action at moments where we may otherwise feel overwhelmed by the weight of behemoth institutions like Congress. I encourage fellow ASA members to take heart in experiences like mine and those of my fellow advocates who have been invigorated by this work, and to feel inspired to join us for future advocacy work.