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The Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago.

The University of Chicago

Professors at the University of Chicago have renewed their opposition to the Chinese-government funded Confucius Institute on their campus, with more than 100 of them signing a petition calling on the Council of the University Senate to vote to terminate the university’s contract with Hanban, the government entity that oversees the centers of Chinese language teaching and research.

“There really are two concerns: substantive issues and then there are procedural issues,” said Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions and an organizer of the petition. “The substantive issue is this is really an anomalous sort of arrangement where an entity outside the university and a powerful entity and an entity that has strong interest in what’s taught is in effect seriously influencing who’s teaching and what’s taught under our name and inside our curriculum.”

In regard to procedural issues, the petition argues that the decision of whether to renew the contract for the Confucius Institute should properly belong to the elected council of faculty members and not to administrators. Time is ticking: the five-year contract, which expires in September, will be automatically renewed for another five years unless either party notifies the other of intent to terminate at least 90 days before the agreement's end.

“Although it is generally acknowledged that decisions concerning the establishment of entities with teaching responsibilities ('education') fall within the purview of the council for approval, and although the original [a]greement with Hanban signed on 29 September 2009 prominently included such teaching, the creation of the Confucius Institute was not brought before the council at that time,” the petition states. “We believe it now falls to the council to remedy that oversight with regard to a contract with Hanban which specifies: in Article 4, that the Confucius Institute will undertake the teaching of Chinese language, provide Chinese language teaching resources, and train Chinese language instructors; and in Article 6, that Hanban will provide 3000 volumes of Chinese books, teaching materials, and audio visual materials, as well as send sufficient numbers of qualified [Chinese] instructors … and pay for their airfares and salaries.'"

The establishment of Confucius Institutes on U.S. campuses has been controversial. On the one hand, universities -- especially those that don't have robust Chinese language departments of their own -- have welcomed the influx of foreign money and the ability to import Chinese language instructors at Hanban's expense. On the other, many have raised concerns that in partnering with a Chinese government entity to support the teaching of language and culture, universities are in effect ceding their control over the curriculum. In December, the Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a statement urging the country's universities to sever their ties with Confucius Institutes for these reasons, arguing that in allowing an entity of an authoritarian government to have a say over curriculum, texts and class discussion topics, universities are "compromising their own integrity." 

Critics of Confucius Institutes have also raised concerns related to allegedly discriminatory hiring. Ontario's McMaster University opted to close its Confucius Institute last year after a former instructor filed a complaint with the province's Human Rights Tribunal alleging that the university was “giving legitimization to discrimination” because her contract with Hanban prohibited her participation in Falun Gong. 

The Chicago faculty petition cites both the CAUT statement and the McMaster decision and alleges that Hanban-hired instructors are trained to divert or ignore questions on politically sensitive topics in China like Tiananmen Square and Taiwan. "Among the problems posed by Hanban’s control of the hiring and training of teachers is that that [sic] it thus subjects the university’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China," states the petition, which includes 7 department chairs among the 108 total signatories.

Notably absent among the petition's signatories are the university's China specialists, however, with the exception of one professor emeritus, Anthony C. Yu.

Edward Shaughnessy, a professor in early Chinese studies and the chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the time the Confucius Institute was established, took issue with the petition's depiction of Hanban control over hiring and the curriculum.

"The Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization is fully responsible for all Chinese language teaching that goes on on campus," he said.

Shaughnessy said that the department interviews the visiting instructor candidates proposed by Hanban and then votes on their appointments. The instructors teach courses under the auspices of the department, Shaughnessy said: in other words there's no parallel Confucius Institute curricular track offering different courses or using different materials (indeed the faculty petition even notes that Chicago has "ignored the provisions in the agreement specifying that Hanban will supply texts and course materials for Chinese language instruction").

"Our Confucius Institute does not offer classes of its own; the teachers participate in the University of Chicago Chinese language program," said Dali Yang, the director of the Confucius Institute and a professor of political science. He added however that the primary function of the Confucius Institute at Chicago is to fund faculty research projects related to China. He said that a faculty committee vets the research proposals, and while a budget listing the selected projects is sent to Hanban for approval, Yang said that in all cases the projects selected by the faculty committee have been funded. 

"We have instituted processes to be sure that the research agenda is led by our faculty," Yang said.

"These functions of research support and language instruction serve the intellectual interests of our faculty members and our students’ growing interest in learning Chinese," John Mark Hansen, the Hutchinson Professor in Political Science and chair of the Confucius Institute's Board of Directors, said in a written statement. "In that sense it is not fundamentally different from support for scholarship on particular places that our scholars receive from governments and foundations all over the world."

The statement from Hansen, also a senior adviser to Chicago's president, continues, in part: "A committee of three distinguished faculty members has been working since February to review the CIUC's [Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago's] activities and make recommendations concerning areas of value or potential concern. Their work has included discussions with a wide range of faculty colleagues, including outspoken critics of the Confucius Institute. They reached out to all faculty members via email and held open meetings to solicit feedback. Their conclusions and recommendations will inform the CIUC board and the relevant deans and the provost as they proceed with decisions concerning the renewal of the university's agreement with the Confucius Institute."

Judith Farquhar, the chair of that committee, said it was convened by the board of the Confucius Institute on behalf of the president and provost. The committee report is complete, she said, but has not yet been released to the faculty council pending review by the Confucius Institute board and the university administration. She expects the council will take up the report at its May 13 meeting. 

Melina Hale, the spokeswoman for the committee of the council (essentially the executive committee) confirmed that a discussion on the subject of Confucius Institutes is planned for the May meeting. 

As for a vote? "I don't anticipate a vote," Hale said.

A press release distributed by the petition's backers states that "it is still unclear whether President Robert J. Zimmer will permit a vote on the issue or if he will seek to block it." A spokesman for the university, Jeremy Manier, declined to respond to a question about whether the university administration considers it to be the prerogative of the faculty council to take a binding vote on the question of contract renewal.

The latest faculty petition represents the second time that Chicago faculty have objected to a lack of a formal vote on the subject. In 2010, more than 170 Chicago faculty signed a petition objecting to the growing "corporatization" of the university, which cited the failure to consult faculty governing bodies on the establishment of the Confucius Institute as one of many manifestations of the university's movement toward "administrative centralization, entrepreneurial pursuit of profit, evasion and effacement of faculty control." That petition described the Confucius Institute as "an academically and politically ambiguous initiative" and argued that the university risked the use of its reputation to "legitimate the spread of such Confucius Institutes in this country and beyond." 

Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Chicago and the author of several critical articles on Confucius Institutes (including this one, from The Nation), said that the Chinese government has courted elite universities like Chicago, Columbia and Stanford as part of a strategy to gain acceptance. In a GW Hatchet article from last year, a George Washington University administrator cited the establishment of Confucius Institutes at elite institutions like Chicago as increasing the university's comfort level with the concept.

"Consequently the adverse would be if they [elite universities] withdrew from the Confucius Institutes the effect would be quite the reverse: other places will think twice about joining or renewing their contracts," Sahlins said.

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