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Security scholarships may be dangerous for colleges

If you’re interested in “Middle Eastern and South Asian language studies, engineering, computer science, analytical thinking, Islamic studies and other specialties,” you might want to go to the CIA for school money instead of a bank.

According to USA Today, college students pursuing those skills have been awarded more than $16 million in funds over the past two years. The money comes from a host of intelligence agencies: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Department of Homeland Security and others.

The funds have helped hundreds afford tuition costs and have even caused some schools to set up classes that cater directly to students interested in careers in national intelligence.

Needless to say, the intelligence community’s goal is to assure it will have a sufficient number of skilled employees in the future.

“We want to hire an engineer that understands world cultures and religions and speaks Urdu and Farsi or maybe Korean,” said Lenora Peters Gant, head of ODNI’s program.

Interestingly, the intelligence community is also using the funds to belie the image of the stereotypical intelligent agent – usually a black-suited white man with sunglasses and an earpiece.

“Three of the 10 schools backed by (ODNI) are historically black colleges. More than 90 percent of students at a fourth college are women,” according to a USA Today article.

The intelligence community has certainly thought this through. Urdu, Farsi and Korean are spoken in Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, respectively, so it’s a safe bet they will be relevant in future national security issues. The fact that the funds are going to minorities and women is even better and will more fully integrate those groups in a profession historically considered to be the domain of white males.

There’s a problem, however, even with this otherwise constructive, mutually beneficial plan: academic freedom.

It wasn’t long ago that the intelligence community used such scholarships to spy on the politics of professors on college campuses. David Price, an anthropology professor at St. Martin’s University in Spokane, Wash., said the intelligence community keeps the identities of its university beneficiaries a secret in some cases.

Price told USA Today, “I’ve looked at far too many old FBI documents to ever be comfortable with the idea.”

It’s a shame, really. The intelligence community legitimately needs workers in the future, and their ideas are good ones. The funds they have made available are helping hundreds. But it’s still a little scary, and academia’s cold feet are justified. After all, classrooms can hardly be considered a safe haven of ideas if the CIA is tuning in.