The Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill is focusing its annual lecture series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the language classroom, while simultaneously taking in millions of dollars from the US Department of Education.

Six study centers at UNC-Chapel Hill, focusing on different regions of the world, were awarded approximately $12 million in federal Title VI funding last year, which is gradually being distributed through 2025. Funds allocated specifically to the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies top $2.3 million over the four-year span to support functions such as coursework, events, and outreach.

As part of the North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies, the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies promotes an awareness of the Middle East through teaching, research, and community engagement. The center recognizes challenges when considering the implementation of DEIA into the linguistic and cultural framework of Middle Eastern curricula. For example, the center says most teaching curricula, like textbooks and other materials, limit diversity. Current resources present “colonized” and “privileged” points of view while failing to reflect evolving societies and current social justice movements. This makes adapting DEIA practices into American academics a challenge.

What could be even more complex are the languages themselves. Like Spanish and French, gendered language is a fundamental part of some Middle Eastern languages. Arabic is the most commonly spoken language in the Middle East. The language composition is rooted in gender with each verb, noun, and adjective given a male or female clarifier. However, the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies says historically gendered languages fail to provide “space for non-binary or gender fluid students to find their personal identity in the language.” This could be changed, the lecture series suggests, and it starts with the professors. 

In a comment to the Carolina Journal, the university emphasized that the DEIA lecture series is primarily intended for educators, specifically language instructors of Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish, and Hindi/Urdu. The university said, “During the lecture series, individuals will discuss how to incorporate transformative practices into the linguistic and cultural framework of curricula.”

The series seeks to effectively transform language and culture to achieve more diversity and inclusivity. Leading scholars will guide professors towards “standardization” and “inclusion” in the classroom, helping educators identify privileged voices while incorporating social justice language. While the university center sees an opportunity to bring gender fluid teachings to American students, other North Carolinian experts avidly oppose what they see as the unnatural and political nature of transforming foreign languages.

“It’s not the place of modern American scholars to change the languages they are supposed to be teaching,” argued Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. “This is the ‘Latinx’ debate all over again, during which we discovered that most native Spanish speakers don’t use the term ‘Latinx.'” 

The term “Latinx” provides a gender-neutral ending in place of a masculine or feminine clarifier, but it remains largely unused among Spanish speakers. According to Pew Research Center, one in four Hispanics have heard of the term ‘Latinx,’ while just 3% use it.  

“Languages do evolve, but that should be an organic process, not a politicized top-down decision. Professors shouldn’t inject an agenda into foreign language instruction,” Robinson added.

President Biden signed an executive order to drive greater diversity, equity, and inclusion actions on his first day in office, which promoted the US Department of Education’s 2022 Agency Equity Plan. In the plan, the department specifically requires grant applicants to explain how they will contribute to the advancement of equity through prospective federal funds. The government application provides examples of barriers — including gender, race, language, migrant status, pregnancy, and sexual orientation — that can be addressed with funding. 

“Consistent with the priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration, the Department has and is focused on strengthening the agency’s processes, policies, strategies, and culture to ensure equity is the foundation upon which all decisions and protocols rest, and to strengthen the agency’s work and build on its impact,” the plan reads. 

UNC Chapel Hill’s area studies centers received $8.6 million from the US Department of Education for the 2018–2022 Title VI grant cycle. From 2014–2018, the centers received over $9 million in federal education grants. As DEIA is propelled into foreign language education through its professors, strategic planning documents for the next three years indicate the center is pivoting toward additional issues around minorities, women, and LGBTQI+ rights.