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Over the last five years, most of the Confucius Institutes hosted at American colleges and universities have closed down—but now a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine outlines a process for their potential return.
Whether U.S. colleges and universities would be interested in partnering with the Chinese government to host a Confucius Institute is unclear. The institutes started in 2004 as a way to provide Chinese language instruction and cultural programs to communities, K-12 schools and college students, but they came under scrutiny during the Trump administration from lawmakers who said the institutes were a national security threat. Faculty groups had been sounding the alarm about the threat to academic freedom before lawmakers got involved.
As part of the Confucius Institute model, the Chinese government would provide instructors and funding, and the host institution would provide matching funds and in-kind resources, such as office space.
Gao Qing, former director of now-closed Confucius Institute U.S. Center, said he doesn’t expect to see a return of Confucius Institutes. The Confucius Institute U.S. Center served as the headquarters of the American network of institutes, and the State Department designated it a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China in 2020.
“The ground is poisoned right now, not only with the Confucius Institutes but also almost everything related to China,” Gao said.
Today, there are seven institutes—one of which will close in June—down from the peak of more than 100. Many colleges and universities opted to close their institutes after a change in federal law that barred institutions with Confucius Institutes from receiving Defense Department money. The department was able to exempt institutions from this prohibition but declined to issue the necessary waivers.
The National Academies report found that the CIs, as the institutes are widely called, can be beneficial to universities but do pose risks academic freedom, freedom of expression and research security. To mitigate those risks, the report recommended a set of criteria for waivers.
The Defense Department sponsored the report, which was released this month. The Committee on Confucius Institutes at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education, made up of college administrators and professors, wrote the study.
“It is the committee’s hope that this study will contribute to safeguarding U.S. higher education and the U.S. innovation system while promoting the vigilant openness that has made U.S. colleges and universities among the finest in the world,” the report says.
The proposed waiver criteria could be used starting Oct. 1 if the Defense Department decides to move forward.
Hank Reichman, a professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, raised concerns about Confucius Institutes when he chaired the American Association of University of Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The AAUP’s concerns are largely moot now that most of the CIs have closed down.
Still, Reichman said, the report can be helpful in assessing other programs on campuses funded by outside entities.
“These are good criteria for judging the appropriateness, shall we say, of any outside funding program,” he said.
The committee is planning to release another report in June that will take a broader look of foreign-funded entities on college campuses.
Reichman said the National Academies report raises the right questions about CIs, which had been accused of playing a role in espionage or intellectual property theft. The committee didn’t find “any evidence at the unclassified level” to back up those allegations, according to the report.
“The report acknowledges that the problems associated with Confucius Institutes are not mainly or perhaps even at all about espionage and intellectual property theft,” said Reichman, who reviewed a draft of the report for the committee. “I really approve of the fact that they’re putting the emphasis in the right place around values, particularly around academic freedom, shared governance and transparency.”
Gao also sees value in the report, which he said provides a comprehensive look at CIs and an in-depth review of the facts.
“If we really want to cooperate with China, if people can work together to change their countries, we need those people-to-people programs,” he said. “This report may build momentum for academic institutions to take a leading role and to be resilient in continuing to work on those people-to-people programs.”
Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth College and chairman of the committee that authored the report, said that CIs can provide benefits such as expanding language instruction capacity and that the risks posed can be mitigated.
“It’s an economic and national security advantage for the U.S,” he said. “It’s good for us to have students who know Mandarin, who understand Chinese culture, especially as they go out into the workforce and work for our global companies.”
To receive a waiver, a university essentially needs to prove they have full control over the institute, subjecting the CI to all university policies and procedures, Hanlon said. That means making any agreement or budget public and approving CI curricula through a faculty governance review. Other provisions include hiring CI staff in accordance with the institution’s human resources policies and showing documentation of an established, regular review process for the CI.
“Part of this comes from our campuses [that] have long valued freedom of expression, academic freedom, research integrity, research security, and so we built mechanisms to try to protect those things,” Hanlon said.
Ian Oxnevad, a program research associate at the National Association of Scholars, which has tracked the closures of the Confucius Institutes, doesn’t think an institution could show that it has full control over a Confucius Institute.
“Money doesn’t come with no strings attached,” he said. “In many cases, these agreements that were penned between schools and China were done behind closed doors. Oftentimes, there was outrage over the agreements when it came to light. The university is not just going to gobble up money for nothing. There’s going to be strings attached. It’s profoundly naïve to think that it’s not.”
Oxnevad and other NAS researchers found in a June 2022 report that closed Confucius Institutes have reappeared on other college campuses or were rebranded into other programs, which he said shows they still pose a threat.
“It’s a profoundly bad idea to issue waivers,” he said
‘Can Be Done Responsibly’
Paul Manfredi, professor of Chinese at Pacific Lutheran University, has led the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington for the last two years. Pacific Lutheran took the institute over from the University of Washington in 2020.
He’s still reviewing the report to see if the university can meet the suggested waiver criteria. His initial impression is that meeting the requirements would be a lengthy and time-consuming process.
The institute’s key agreements didn’t involve faculty oversight, and the Chinese instructors don’t receive a fixed salary or stipend, which would complicate the provision that calls for processing those employees through the university’s human resources department. Currently, the Chinese institution handles the finances for instructors, and the funds provided are based on the cost of living.
“The arrangement that we have seems to work well, and shifting to what the report seems to suggest would be pretty much a disaster, but I suppose I would consider it,” he said.
Still, he said, the report will be useful in talking with other administrators about the program.
“At least now I have something that’s relatively objective and certainly thoroughly researched in most respects to hand to administrators,” he said.
He’s hoping to expand and work with more colleges and universities.
“There’s a huge need for Chinese language instruction, and it can be done responsibly,” he said. “The programs that we were running just a few years ago were quite effective serving our large number of students, resulting in people becoming knowledgeable about Chinese culture in ways that are literally not possible now because resources are so slim.”