The chancellor of the Texas A&M system said the university would terminate its agreement to host Confucius Institutes -- centers for Chinese language teaching and cultural programming funded by the Chinese government -- in response to the urging of two congressmen who described the institutes as threats to national security.
An increasing number of politicians have in recent months urged American colleges to sever their ties with the Chinese government-backed institutes, but this appears to be the first time a university has explicitly cited a recommendation from elected officials as its reason for terminating a Confucius Institute agreement. Critics and supporters of the Confucius Institutes alike said they are concerned about external political influence over university decision making.
The recommendation that Texas A&M close its Confucius Institutes came in an open letter from U.S. Representatives Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, and Michael McCaul, a Republican. The two congressmen, who both represent Texas, said they sent the letter to four Texas universities that host the institutes, including A&M.
“We strongly urge these universities to consider terminating their partnerships with Confucius Institutes and other Chinese government supported organizations," Representatives Cuellar and McCaul said in a joint statement accompanying the letter's release. "These organizations are a threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda. We have a responsibility to uphold our American values of free expression, and to do whatever is necessary to counter any behavior that poses a threat to our democracy.”
Texas A&M chancellor John Sharp issued a four-sentence statement saying that he would heed the congressmen’s recommendation.
“We have great respect for Congressmen McCaul and Cuellar. I don’t question their judgment, nor their patriotism. In addition, they have access to classified information we do not have. We are terminating the contract as they suggested,” Sharp said.
Two Texas A&M campuses host Confucius Institutes: the flagship campus in College Station and the Prairie View campus, a historically black university. Laylan Copelin, a spokesman for the system, said Texas A&M will terminate the agreements for both the institutes.
The Confucius Institutes have been controversial pretty much ever since the first institute was established on a U.S. campus in 2004. Supporters of the institutes, which are now hosted by about 100 U.S. colleges in collaboration with Chinese partner universities, say they represent a valuable vehicle for educational exchange and that the Chinese government funding provides welcome resources for Chinese language education and cultural programming at a time when such resources are otherwise hard to come by. They argue that the institutes are apolitical, limited in their mandate to Chinese language and cultural education, and do not spread propaganda.
On the other hand, critics of the Confucius Institutes have accused universities of compromising their academic freedom by handing over control of curricular matters -- including the hiring of visiting Chinese language teachers who staff the institutes -- to a Chinese government entity. They have argued that Confucius Institutes promote a Chinese state agenda and raise concerns related to censorship and self-censorship.
The debate is not new, but in the last few months the terms of the debate have shifted, from one about academic freedom and integrity to one about the Chinese government's overseas influence activities and concerns about espionage on U.S. campuses. The letter from the two Texas congressmen cites testimony from Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that the FBI has concerns about Confucius Institutes and in some cases has “developed appropriate investigative steps" in relation to them. Wray’s comment came in response to questioning from U.S. senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, who has emerged as a particularly vocal critic of the Confucius Institutes. Rubio, a Republican, in February sent letters to colleges in his state urging them to close their Confucius Institutes. U.S. representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat representing Massachusetts, has also written to Massachusetts universities encouraging them to cut their Confucius Institute ties, according to The Boston Globe.
“In the incipient cold war with China, the critical discourse on Confucius Institutes has shifted from academic freedom to spying, having been taken over from the academics and the universities by conservative politicians and state security agencies,” Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at the University of Chicago and a critic of Confucius Institutes on academic freedom- and integrity-related grounds, said via email. Sahlins, author of the pamphlet Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware, said that in recent weeks he'd been contacted by two U.S. congressional committees that are looking into the institutes.
“In the ironic upshot, as the Texas A&M episode shows, agents and agencies of the American government now mimic the totalitarian actions of the Chinese government by dictating what can and cannot be taught in our own universities," Sahlins said via email. "But then, the professoriate and their universities have no one to blame but themselves that the attack on academic freedom has thus been redoubled, as they failed to recognize the threat to their own intellectual values posed more than a decade ago by the establishment of Confucius Institutes in their midst."
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors issued a statement asserting that “North American universities permit Confucius Institutes to advance a state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.” The statement urged American universities to sever their ties with the institutes unless they could renegotiate their contracts to ensure “unilateral control … over all academic matters” and academic freedom rights for Confucius Institute teachers.
“We have concerns about their operations,” Hans-Joerg Tiede, the associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance at the AAUP, said of Confucius Institutes. “But we also have concerns about politicians telling universities what to do.”
Tiede said the decision to shutter the Confucius Institutes at Texas A&M raises concerns about institutional autonomy. “Decisions of that kind ought to be made within the university using shared governance,” he said.
Randy Kluver, the founding director of the Confucius Institute at Texas A&M in College Station, described the decision to close the institute as “painful.”
“I have been active for years countering these accusations that the Confucius Institutes are a vehicle for propaganda. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Kluver, who left Texas A&M last year and is now dean of the School of Global Studies and Partnerships at Oklahoma State University. "It's disappointing to me that, No. 1, the accusations continue to be floated even though there’s no evidence of propaganda. Secondly, I personally wish that the chancellor had talked to me or some of those involved with the Confucius Institute before he made this decision.”
Copelin, the spokesman for the system, did not respond on Sunday afternoon to a follow-up question about whether the chancellor had consulted with Confucius Institute directors or faculty prior to making the decision.
Kluver said the Confucius Institute at the College Station campus -- unlike some at other institutes -- did not offer for-credit classes. It offered community classes and held talks by faculty who researched topics related to China. It also subsidized study abroad programs to China. Kluver said about a tenth of the approximately $100,000-per-year budget for the institute went toward a Lunar New Year celebration for the community.
"It just allowed us to do things that we wouldn't have done otherwise," he said. "The university would not have sponsored a Lunar New Year celebration; we wouldn't have provided the subsidized study abroad program and things like that."
At the same time, Kluver said, the flagship campus's Confucius Institute, which was established in 2007, was a less integral part of A&M's China-related activities than it had been in its early years.
“If universities shut down their Confucius Institutes because they don’t need them anymore, because they think it’s just not worth the effort, I have no issue with that at all,” Kluver said. “What I’m concerned about is that Texas A&M will be used as a pressure point for every other institute now.” His concern, he continued, is that it will be said that “Texas A&M shut theirs down because they recognized that they were spoon-feeding Chinese propaganda to their students. That’s how it’s going to be represented. That’s not what happened.”
Two other universities that received the letter from the Texas lawmakers said they were reviewing the congressmen's concerns. The University of Texas at San Antonio said in a statement that its Confucius Institute "was established in 2009 to promote Chinese language training, lectures and workshops, and Chinese cultures and arts" and that it "is under full control of professors and officials from UTSA. We value the perspectives of the congressmen and will do our due diligence in evaluating their concerns."
John Walls, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Dallas, said the university had received the letter from Cuellar and McCaul. "We are currently reviewing all issues related to the Confucius Institute," Walls said.
A spokesman for the fourth university that the congressmen said they sent the letter to, Texas Southern University, did not respond to a request for comment. Roger Hart, an associate professor of history at Texas Southern who serves as the director of its Confucius Institute, described the institute's work in an interview but emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of it or the university.
"Texas Southern, as you may know, we’re [a historically black college or university]," Hart said. "We did not have Chinese language before the Confucius Institute was set up, so we get Chinese teachers to teach our credit-bearing courses here in Chinese language and then we also are able to take students to China for a couple weeks each summer. We take about 15 students, and as an HBCU we serve underprivileged students, underserved students. Some of our students have never left Texas; some of our students have never left Houston. Their first trip on an airplane is to Beijing, China, for two weeks of Chinese language instruction. We change these students’ lives. I’m tremendously proud of the work we do."
A handful of Confucius Institutes in North America have closed in recent years. The most prominent closure happened in 2014 at the University of Chicago, where more than 100 faculty had signed a petition calling for the termination of the Confucius Institute contract (Chicago cited comments in a news article from the then director-general of Hanban, the Chinese government entity that oversees the institutes, as the official reason for why it ended the Confucius Institute agreement). Pennsylvania State University also closed its Confucius Institute in 2014, saying its goals were not consistent with those of Hanban. McMaster University, in Ontario, closed its Confucius Institute a year earlier, in 2013, after a former instructor at the institute 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 the spiritual practice Falun Gong.
More recently, after Rubio sent a letter to the Florida colleges that host Confucius Institutes urging them to sever their agreements, the University of West Florida said it had already made the decision to do so, in part due to insufficient student interest.
It is not just Confucius Institutes that are subject to the growing political scrutiny of Chinese-U.S. university ties. In January, U.S. senator Ted Cruz, a Republican representing Texas, sent a letter to the University of Texas at Austin's president expressing concerns that the university was considering accepting funding from a foundation with ties to the Chinese Communist Party for a recently established China Public Policy Center. UT Austin president Greg Fenves wrote in response to Cruz that he had already decided, based on his own review of the issues, prior to receiving the senator's letter that the university would not accept the funding.