U.S. Answer to Confucius Institutes

American colleges and the State Department jointly set up "American Cultural Centers" at Chinese universities.

November 2, 2012

In what experts describe as an unusual form of public diplomacy, U.S. colleges have created State-Department-funded “American Cultural Centers” in partnership with Chinese host universities.

“Their primary purpose is to expose Chinese audiences to the depth and breadth of U.S. culture,” said Erik W. Black, an assistant cultural affairs officer at the American embassy in Beijing, which administers the grants. Colleges that have received them have used the funding to create resource centers or reading rooms, host visiting faculty lectures on American cultural topics, and sponsor arts programming.

While the State Department has long run stand-alone “American Centers” in foreign countries, this kind of close collaboration with universities is a new phenomenon, said Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and author of the new book, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001. “It shows the concerns of the State Department with the asymmetry of the Sino-American public diplomacy relationship,” said Cull. “The Chinese have a lot of things going on over here, and have been able to really limit what the United States is able to do in China.”

Among the things that China has going on over here are the controversial Confucius Institutes -- Chinese government-funded centers housed at universities in the U.S. and elsewhere. The institutes have vastly expanded the resources available for Chinese culture and language study, but critics have questioned the wisdom of housing them within universities. The Confucius Institutes have, after all, been described by a top Chinese government official as "an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup." The centers may not be ideological, but critics say they promote a benign, uncritical view of China and shift the focus away from controversial government policies.

The State Department’s request for proposals implicitly poses the Confucius Institutes as a model for the kind of university-to-university collaborations it is hoping to promote: “The PRC’s creation in the United States of multiple university-based ‘Confucius Institutes’ has increased the level and quality of the study of Chinese language and culture in the U.S,” the document states. “Though China as a national policy requires the study of the English language broadly among its students, there is no equivalent mechanism for increasing understanding and appreciation for the strength and diversity of American culture and society. While hundreds of affiliation agreements between U.S. and Chinese universities have promoted academic cooperation, the sharing of technical expertise, and U.S. study of China, they have done little to help address the overall level of misunderstanding of U.S. society and culture.”

American Culture vs. American Studies

The grants for the American Cultural Centers are for up to $100,000 and, unlike those for the Confucius Institutes, are one-time-only funding. Black, of the embassy, said the grants are intended as “seed money” to establish a center as a “natural evolution” of existing partnerships between American and Chinese universities.

Arizona State University received a pilot grant from the embassy in 2010, for a center at Sichuan University. An additional 11 proposals were funded in 2011, and seven in 2012. Among the universities that have received grants are South Carolina’s Greenville Technical College and Presbyterian College (which jointly run a center in partnership with Guizhou University); the Universities of Chicago, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North Dakota; and Appalachian State, Iowa State, Ohio State, Morehead State, Southern Utah, and Vanderbilt Universities. One nonprofit organization, the U.S.-China Education Trust, received a grant.  

The centers assume a diversity of forms. Ohio State University used its $100,000 to create a resource center at Wuhan University, with which it has had a 30-year relationship. The center, housed in Wuhan’s foreign languages building, includes a lounge, kitchen, and resource library, complete with a large selection of American cookbooks.  “We see it as a place where not only Wuhan faculty, but people from Hubei province and the city of Wuhan, can come and interact with people from Ohio State on a regular basis,” said William Brustein, Ohio State’s vice provost for global strategies and international affairs.

Minnesota established the American Cultural Center for Sport at Tianjin University of Sport.  The center has sponsored lectures by visiting Minnesota faculty, organized a film festival, and hosted visiting athletes and artists, including a jit dancer. A visiting student group from Duluth played Tianjin students in badminton this summer. (The Minnesotans lost – badly.)

The University of Kentucky has a center at Shanghai University dedicated to the study of Appalachian culture. Kentucky’s center takes the name “American Studies Center,” rather than “American Cultural Center," quite deliberately, said Andy Doolen, an associate professor of English, director of Kentucky’s American Studies Program, and director of the center. Asked whether there are tensions between promoting American culture (as a diplomat would) and critically studying it (as a scholar would), Doolen said that was a concern of his from the beginning.

“I come from an academic perspective that challenges what it is we mean when we talk about democracy,” said Doolen, whose book, Fugitive Empire, examines how slavery and the removal of Native Americans helped shape the evolution of American democracy. “So when I was asked to set up an American culture center, at first I was reluctant. I didn’t want to put something together that was an uncritical, rosy-eyed view of American culture. That just didn’t seem that important to me. But I was given the liberty to define the center in a way that reflected the sort of research – creative and critical research – that’s being done in Kentucky.”

The center sponsored two symposiums featuring Kentucky’s scholars, who spoke on such topics as race and Appalachian poetry, and gender and mountain culture. “Everyone who was there was pushing the idea of what American culture is,” said Doolen.

Diplomatic Tensions

Black, of the embassy, emphasized that the centers operate independently of the State Department.  “Since the American Cultural Centers operate independently of the U.S. Mission to China, there are no ground rules or lists of topics that they must follow,” he said. "We do encourage the universities to take advantage of the programming offered through the U.S. embassy, but we typically avoid getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the centers in terms of what they can and can’t do. We see ourselves as cheerleaders and coaches of the universities.”

Kathryn Mohrman, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State who, with a colleague at Sichuan University, co-directs the SCU-ASU Center for American Culture, said she hasn't faced any pressure from the embassy regarding programming. But Mohrman, a former college president, said that she has personally been careful not to propose programming that is overtly political. She recalled that administrators from Arizona State and Sichuan were originally going to sign the memorandum of understanding governing the center's operations at a high-level State Department event featuring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, before officials at Sichuan abruptly canceled. As her counterpart at Sichuan subsequently explained, "'Concerned parties in Beijing thought this would not be a good idea.'"

"I didn't press him," Mohrman said. "I don't know if it was in the Foreign Ministry or whatever, but he said that as long as it's just academic exchange for our two universities that's no problem; it's when it moves outside academics into the diplomatic realm that we have problems."

"Since then I've been careful....These institutions have over the last 25 years been getting more autonomy, becoming more like Western universities in many respects. They have much more academic freedom than they did before, but they have nothing like the academic freedom you find in the West. You never know quite what the line is," she said.

Lionel Jensen, an associate professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Notre Dame who has written critically of the Confucius Institutes, raised the question of whether these partnerships will herald closer alliances between the State Department and U.S. universities in the future.

"This idea of an alignment with institutions of higher learning is a strange one," he said. "If one is not critical of how the investment is being used, there is the possibility down the road of some abuse of this.”


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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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