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The University of Missouri at Columbia recently announced it would close its Confucius Institute, joining the long and growing list of American universities that are cutting ties with their institutes.
Administrators at the University of Missouri said they were doing so after running afoul of U.S. Department of State policies on visas. About two dozen colleges have announced the closure of a Confucius Institute over the past two years as political pressures over the Chinese government-funded institutions for language and culture education have intensified.
Like many Confucius Institutes, Missouri’s is involved in outreach to K-12 schools; it places visiting Chinese teachers in local K-12 schools.
“We were notified by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs this past July that due to changes in State Department guidance, we would now be required to have a certified Mandarin Chinese language teacher in every classroom with a Confucius Institute staff member,” Mary Stegmaier, Missouri’s interim vice provost for international programs, said in a press release last week. “While Missouri-certified teachers were in the classroom with the CI staff, recruiting and supporting the necessary certified Chinese language teachers would be cost prohibitive.”
Missouri’s Confucius Institute teachers were coming to the U.S. on J-1 exchange visitor visas under the “intern” category instead of the “teacher” category.
“Unsupervised teaching in K-12 schools is restricted to the Teacher category. By allowing exchange visitors in the College and University Student Intern category to engage in unsupervised teaching, the University of Missouri-Columbia is circumventing the strict qualifications of the Teacher category -- a category for which the University of Missouri-Columbia is not designated as a sponsor,” the State Department wrote in a July 15 letter to the university.
“Student interns teaching Mandarin Chinese to minors in K-12 schools without proper supervision creates an area of concern,” a State Department official told Inside Higher Ed. “When teaching a Chinese language course, they should be working under the supervision of an American co-teacher well-versed in the instructional material and able to speak and read Mandarin Chinese. If the interns’ American co-teachers do not speak Mandarin Chinese, even when a co-teacher is in the classroom to supervise the student interns, they cannot evaluate the substance or quality of information and language skills the exchange visitor is teaching and would not fulfill the purpose of the College and University Student Intern category.”
Christian Basi, a University of Missouri spokesman, said the Columbia Public School District looked into sponsoring the instructors under the teacher category but determined it wasn’t feasible for financial reasons.
The University of Pittsburgh similarly announced last summer that it had suspended its Confucius Institute-run internship program in K-12 schools after hearing concerns from the State Department about visas.
The scrutiny of the visa statuses of Confucius Institute teachers comes along with broader scrutiny of the institutes, which increasingly have attracted the ire of Washington politicians who characterize them as outposts for Chinese government propaganda.
Many American colleges have closed their institutes as the political climate has changed. At least eight colleges closed their Confucius Institutes after Congress passed a spending bill, in 2018, barring colleges that host Confucius Institutes from also receiving monies through the Pentagon-funded Flagship Language program. Colleges that closed their Confucius Institutes for this reason include Arizona State, Indiana, San Francisco State and Western Kentucky Universities and the Universities of Hawaii at Manoa, Kansas, Oregon and Rhode Island.
Texas A&M University closed two Confucius Institutes in April 2018 in response to concerns raised by two congressmen that the institutes pose a threat to national security.
Two months earlier, in February 2018, U.S. senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, sent letters to the four colleges in the state that hosted Confucius Institutes, urging them to close. All four of those institutions -- the Universities of North, South and West Florida and Miami Dade College -- have since closed the institutes, citing various reasons (West Florida said its decision to close the institute was due to inadequate student interest and predated Rubio's letter).
Other institutions that have closed their Confucius Institutes over the past two years include North Carolina State University and the Universities of Michigan at Ann Arbor and Minnesota at Twin Cities, all of which cited reasons related to changing strategies for international programs. The National Association of Scholars, a group that is critical of Confucius Institutes, maintains a list, last updated in December, of 29 American colleges that have closed or announced closures of Confucius Institutes. All but a handful of these have made the decision within the last two years.
University professors had long been raising concerns about Confucius Institutes, even before the closures began, on academic freedom-related grounds. The professors argued that by creating the institutes, colleges ceded control over matters of curriculum to the Chinese government entity that supervises the institutes, Hanban. In many cases, Hanban screens the Chinese language teachers and provides curricular materials.
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors called on colleges to reconsider their Confucius Institute partnerships, saying the universities were permitting “Confucius Institutes to advance a [Chinese] state agenda in the recruitment and control of academic staff, in the choice of curriculum, and in the restriction of debate.”
The University of Chicago closed its institute in 2014 after more than 100 faculty signed a petition calling for its closure.
However, it wasn’t until lawmakers started raising concerns about the Confucius Institutes and writing restrictive language into spending bills that the quick spate of closures began.
Missouri senator Josh Hawley praised the Missouri closure in a recent tweet.
Gao Qing, the executive director of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center, in Washington, said demand for Chinese language teaching outstrips supply in the U.S. and that American students will lose out as a result of the closures.
“The political environment is not a friendly environment for international work, educational, cultural or even people-to-people exchanges,” he said.
“It’s not simply the political pressure, but it’s also financial,” said Ryan Allen, an assistant professor of practice in educational studies at Chapman University in California, who focuses on comparative and international education. “If the university or their partners in the United States are having to give any resources or funding or space at all, then it’s a very easy choice to make the cut.”
“I think the Confucius Institutes are easy targets,” Allen said. “There’s a growing Cold War-type suspicion of Chinese students and scholars. If the Confucius institutes went away, I don’t think people like Marco Rubio or others who are concerned with Confucius Institutes, that their concerns would go away.”