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At least 10 American universities have moved to close their Confucius Institutes in the past year as political pressures over the Chinese government-funded institutions for language and culture education have intensified.
The Confucius Institutes have long been controversial. The centers vary somewhat across different campuses, but they typically offer some combination of Mandarin language classes, cultural programming and outreach to K-12 schools and the community more broadly. They are staffed in part with visiting teachers from China and funded by the Chinese government, with matching resources provided by the host institution. The number of U.S. universities hosting the institutes increased rapidly after the first was established at the University of Maryland College Park in 2004, growing to more than 90 at the peak.
In earlier years the main criticism of CIs, as the institutions are known, came from professors and centered on concerns about academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Concerns about the importation of Chinese state censorship -- as in the case of the reported censorship of materials at a Confucius Institute-sponsored conference in Europe in 2014 -- dominated the conversation. Emblematic of this strain of criticism, the American Association of University Professors issued a report in 2014 urging colleges to close their CIs or renegotiate the agreement to ensure academic freedom and control. The AAUP report asserted, "Most agreements establishing Confucius Institutes feature nondisclosure clauses and unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China. Specifically, 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."
Largely the concerns of the professors were ignored by institutions, which continued existing institutes or started new ones up. But over the last year and half, the locus of the debate over Confucius Institutes has shifted from academe to the political sphere as the CIs became tied up in a larger narrative in Washington about Chinese government-influenced activities and espionage-related threats on American campuses.
The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Christopher Wray, told a Senate panel last February that the FBI was concerned about the institutes. The most prominent critics of the CIs in Washington -- U.S. senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas -- have come from the Republican Party, but Democrats have also raised concerns, as in the case of U.S. representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who has called on Tufts University and the University of Massachusetts Boston to close their CIs.
Some universities have closed the institutes in direct response to concerns voiced by lawmakers. This was true in the case of Texas A&M University, which promptly announced the closure of institutes on two of the system's campuses last April after two Texas congressmen called for them to be shuttered, characterizing the Confucius Institutes as a “threat to our nation’s security by serving as a platform for China’s intelligence collection and political agenda.”
Other universities that have moved to close their Confucius Institutes over the past year cite various reasons related to changing strategies, low enrollments in Chinese language classes or budgetary constraints. University leaders have also expressed concerns about the implications of the National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law last August, which prohibits the Defense Department from funding Chinese language programs at institutions that host Confucius Institutes except in cases in which the institutions have obtained a waiver. At least one institution -- the University of Rhode Island -- has opted to close its Confucius Institute so as not to jeopardize funding for its Defense Department-funded Chinese Language Flagship program.
Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago and the author of Confucius Institutes: Academic Malware (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2015), a book critical of CIs, said he thinks the main reason for the closures is “pressure from the American right, including the National Association of Scholars [which issued a critical report of CIs in 2017], as well as lawmakers, and from security agencies of the U.S., notably the FBI: a coalition of political forces responding distantly to the developing Cold War with China -- raising even older terrors such as Communism and the Yellow Peril -- and proximately to drumbeat rumors that CIs are centers of espionage. Those that give other, face-saving reasons are probably protecting their academic cum financial relations to China, such their intake of tuition-paying mainland students.”
“Apparently the tide is beginning to turn, though for the wrong reasons,” Sahlins said. “As I said in my Inside Higher Ed op-ed last year, we are now in a pick-your-poison, lose-lose situation: either keep the CIs or allow the U.S. government to interfere in the curriculum -- mimicking the Chinese [Communist] Party-State.”
Gao Qing, the executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, said misinformation about the CIs “has complicated both the public’s understanding of the issues and the universities’ responses” to the growing political pressures.” The CIs, he said, represent partnerships between American universities and Chinese universities “established for the mutual benefit of joint educational and cultural exchange.”
Gao said they are directed by a faculty or staff member appointed by the host institution with the help of an associate director from the Chinese partner university. "Individual CIs’ curriculum are built and evaluated by their American host universities with complete autonomy," he said. "CIs adhere to the same principles of governance and academic freedom applicable to all institutes and departments in the university. The Chinese instructors sent from Chinese partner universities are invited, vetted, and supervised by American host institutions as visiting scholars."
“In the past year, we have seen growing pressures and allegations on Confucius Institutes and their host universities based on those misunderstandings and misinformation but not valid evidence,” Gao said.
Pressure From Washington
In Florida, three of the four colleges and universities that host Confucius Institutes -- the Universities of North, West and South Florida -- have announced closures of their institutes since their home state senator, Rubio, sent a letter urging them to do so last February (the fourth, Miami Dade College, confirmed that its CI is still operating and that there has been no change to its status). West Florida -- which said it made its decision to close its CI prior to receiving Rubio's letter -- cited inadequate student interest in the institute's programs. North Florida said only that a review found the classes and events offered by the CI “weren’t aligned” with the mission and goals of the university.
South Florida shuttered its Confucius Institute at the end of the calendar year, having undertaken an internal audit after receiving Rubio’s letter. “One thing that was very clear right away was that our CI was being run appropriately, that we had appropriate methods in place to maintain the integrity of the work, and that we felt our Confucius Institute, which this year is 10 years old, was doing what was asked of it. In a way that was the problem,” said Roger Brindley, the vice president for USF World.
Brindley pointed to a couple of main reasons for closing the CI: first, he said it had become clear that the CI’s focus on Chinese language teaching was out of step with USF’s increasing research-focused orientation. Second, he said, enrollments of USF students in Mandarin courses had fallen, from 191 in fall 2013 to 65 this past fall: “We’ve got some work to do there,” he said. “We’d like to see a robust Mandarin language program at USF, but it does mean that the Confucius Institute teachers who were coming over to us from our partner institution, it was problematic how we used them effectively.”
But while Brindley said issues of mission and enrollments were paramount to the decision, he acknowledged that the scrutiny CIs are coming under was a factor. “There are two things we won’t deny,” he said. “The first is that we can’t speak for the other 100 CIs in the United States -- we did a vigorous audit of our CI -- but if there is behavior going on elsewhere in the United States that could fall foul of federal law, frankly we did not want to be associated with that.”
"The other piece of course that we don’t deny is the National Defense Authorization Act. As a research-intensive university, we're concerned [about that]. It’s not necessarily clear what the implications are of the provision that limits federal funding to colleges with Chinese ties."
USF doesn't have a Defense Department-funded Chinese Language Flagship program, but others who host both a Flagship program and a CI may be forced to choose between them if they can't obtain a waiver under the terms of the act. A University of Rhode Island spokeswoman said in a statement that after a review of the law, “we determined there are too many challenges to overcome in order to renew the agreement with the Confucius Institute” and that it would dissolve the CI before May 31.
“We have learned that continuing with the Confucius Institute could jeopardize federal funding for the university’s Chinese Language Flagship Program, which is a highly successful language academic program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense,” the Rhode Island statement said.
Several other institutions with both Chinese Language Flagship programs and Confucius Institutes -- Arizona State, San Francisco State and Western Kentucky Universities and the Universities of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and Oregon -- told Inside Higher Ed they have applied for waivers to allow them to keep both programs.
A Defense Department spokeswoman said that all institutions that host Defense-funded National Security Education programs in Chinese and a Confucius Institute have been given the opportunity to submit requests for waivers in order to be eligible for funding for the current fiscal year. She said the requests are currently under review.
Other institutions that have announced closures of Confucius Institutes within the last 12 months include the Universities of Iowa, Michigan at Ann Arbor and Minnesota at Twin Cities and North Carolina State University. In addition to these institutions, Tufts University has charged a committee with reviewing its CI, and a decision on whether to renew the CI agreement when it expires in June has not been made yet pending receipt of the committee’s recommendations.
The recently announced closures follow on closures of the CIs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in 2017; Pennsylvania State University, in 2014; and the University of Chicago, where more than 100 faculty members had signed a petition calling for the closure in 2014. North of the border, in Ontario, McMaster University closed its CI in 2013 after a visiting instructor from China claimed the university was “giving legitimization to discrimination” because her contract with Hanban -- the Chinese government entity that sponsors the institutes -- prohibited her participation in the religious organization Falun Gong.
Of the recent closures, Iowa announced last summer it would close the CI along with six other centers on campus as a budget-reducing move in response to state funding cuts. Downing A. Thomas, the associate provost and dean for international programs at Iowa, said the decision to close the CI upon the expiration of the contract this July was “entirely a budgetary one. It stems from the generational disinvestment in public higher education that we are experiencing in Iowa, and is no way a reflection on the value of the outreach programs in language and culture that our Confucius Institute has conducted over many years.”
The institute at Minnesota’s campus, which will close at the end of the academic year, focuses heavily on K-12 outreach, working with a network of slightly more than a dozen “Confucius classrooms” in K-12 schools across the state. Meredith McQuaid, the associate vice president and dean for global programs and strategy alliance, said that over the CI’s 10-year history it received about $3 million in funding from the Chinese government and that the university contributed about $2 million.
McQuaid said that after 10 years, now was a good time to re-evaluate the CI and see if resources could be invested elsewhere. Minnesota is one of a handful of schools that has both a CI and a Defense-funded Chinese Language Flagship program, and McQuaid said that while that the National Defense Authorization Act was “a factor” in the decision to close the CI, “it wasn’t the factor.”
“Our Confucius Institute was dedicated to the K-12 community, and over the course of 10 years we have introduced Chinese language and culture through CI programs that have now become part of the fabric of the schools,” she said. “They have had Chinese language teachers and now know themselves if it’s important enough to hire their own or if they want to share with another district.”
“In a time of limited resources at every university campus, can we use the resources we have invested in a K-12 strategy in a different way?” McQuaid asked, “recognizing that the schools have benefited greatly over the past 10 years.”
At Michigan, the CI has a very different focus, focusing on Chinese visual and performing arts rather than language teaching. James Paul Holloway, Michigan’s vice provost for global engagement and interdisciplinary academic affairs, said the decision not to renew the contract for the CI when it expires this year was driven by a desire to bring Chinese arts programming into the university’s regular academic units. The decision means the university will forfeit about $300,000 annually in Chinese government funding -- which it matched with its own $300,000 -- but Holloway said that while the funds were greatly appreciated, “in the context of the University of Michigan as a whole, that is not an amount of money that determines whether we can or can’t do something.”
“The Confucius Institute here was never meant to be forever -- it’s a series of five-year agreements -- and we really wanted to use the Confucius Institute and the support the Chinese government was providing to foster and grow the interest on our campus in the study of Chinese visual and performing arts,” Holloway said. “We’re at a point now where if we want our regular academic units to continue our engagement and that interest, they in some sense need to regularize it; they need to decide as part of their regular academic work that they’re going to pursue that.”
A spokeswoman for North Carolina State University, which will close its CI at the end of June, referred Inside Higher Ed to a written statement about the closure and to the provost’s comments in a Raleigh News & Observer article. “What we really wanted to do was develop a China/Asia strategy that was independent, that was not funded by the Chinese government, that was consistent with our strategy in other areas of the world, and refocus on our core mission of opening opportunities for our faculty and our students,” North Carolina State’s provost, Warwick Arden, told the News & Observer.
Some have praised universities for forgoing the Chinese government funding, which they say has come at an unacceptable cost. “Now, colleges and universities are waking up to the fact that they may have permitted the Chinese government to purchase a piece of their curriculum -- or at least they realize the political winds have shifted and it is no longer convenient to advertise such a cozy relationship with the Chinese government,” Rachelle Peterson, the author of the National Association of Scholars report critical of CIs, wrote in an article about the North Carolina State closure.
Others lament the loss of a major source of funding for Chinese language instruction and cultural programming at a time when such resources are hard to find.
“To me, it’s a big loss to faculty and students,” said DeYu Xie, a professor of plant and microbial biology at North Carolina State and a member of the CI advisory board there. The 2018 annual report from North Carolina State’s CI estimates that the institute has served more than 35,000 individuals, including more than 12,000 NC State students, with Chinese language courses, and that more than 920,000 people have attended Chinese cultural events over the institute’s 12-year history.
Ryan Allen, an assistant professor of educational studies at Chapman University, said that even absent the political pressures, he would expect to see some CIs closing. “They expanded so fast and so quickly that it’s almost like throw everything at a wall and see what sticks -- of course some of things are going to fall down,” he said.
Political pressures aside, Allen, who did his master’s thesis research on the CIs, said for years there have been questions about the long-term financial sustainability of the CI model, which depends on matching resources from the host institutions. He emphasized that political and financial pressures on the institutes can be interconnected.
“Go to an administrator, or go to a university president, or anyone dealing with their budget and say we have to dedicate any money at all, just a little bit, it doesn’t matter, to this Confucius Institute,” Allen said.
“‘What -- those things that I see on TV that Marco Rubio is criticizing?’” Allen imagined the administrator asking.
“‘Yeah, those things.’”
“So, what is the question,” Allen continued, of the hypothetical administrator’s reaction. “That’s the first thing to go. It’s not necessarily, ‘Oh, I’m listening to Marco Rubio’; it’s ‘this made the decision much easier.’ If there’s any kind of criticism, well, there are already issues with budgets, things are already tight, spaces on campus [are] tight, administrators’ time is tight, professors are already teaching as many classes as they can, there aren’t really that many students taking these classes. It’s an easy answer what gets cut first.”