Another Confucius Institute to Close

October 1, 2014

Pennsylvania State University is the second institution within a week to confirm that it will not be continuing its agreement to host a Confucius Institute, a center for Chinese language and cultural training funded by the Chinese government. In confirming that the university will be ending its Confucius Institute agreement at the end of this year (Dec. 31), the dean of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts cited goals that are inconsistent with those of Hanban, the Chinese government agency that administers the institutes.

“Over the past five years, our Asian Studies has grown successfully from a program to become a full department,” Dean Susan Welch said in a written statement. “We worked collegially with our partners at the Dalian University of Technology. However, several of our goals are not consistent with those of the Office of Chinese Languages Council International, known as the Hanban, which provides support to Confucius Institutes throughout the world.”

A Penn State spokeswoman declined to elaborate on specific ways in which the university's goals differ from those of Hanban. 

One professor in the Asian Studies department and a former director of Penn State's Confucius Institute said he suspected that the institute might not have been providing enough of a return on the investment the university was putting into it. "I will say that in my experience as CI director one of the major frustrations with the relationship was that we consistently had more ambitious ideas for the ways CI funding could be used -- mainly to support research not only in the humanities or on Chinese culture, but also on science, politics, the environment, and a variety of other topics -- that the Hanban regularly rejected as too far outside the official CI ambit (which they would tell us was mainly 'cultural')," Eric Hayot, a professor of comparative literature and Asian studies, said via email. (Hayot said he was not involved in the decision to end the Confucius Institute relationship.)

"Because the CI did not provide much support for our very robust Chinese-language program -- we did not use Chinese teachers from the Hanban at Penn State, and did not use Hanban pedagogical material -- this meant that much of the work the CI could do was restricted to a fairly narrow range of activities within the university -- cultural activities and events by visiting Chinese troupes promoted by the Hanban, for instance -- and then some other activities outside the university (support for community events, and so on)," Hayot said.

Broadly speaking, the Confucius Institutes, which are located at about 90 U.S. universities, have been controversial for reasons related to academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Many have pointed to a lack of critical programming on politically sensitive subjects such as the Tiananmen Square massacre at the Confucius institutes, which are typically staffed, in part, by language instructors hired by Hanban and which often use Hanban teaching materials. The American Association of University Professors issued a statement this summer urging universities to cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes unless they can renegotiate their contracts to ensure certain terms are met. The AAUP statement said that in hosting the institutes “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.”

Just last week, the University of Chicago announced that it was suspending negotiations to renew its Confucius Institute agreement, which expired on Monday. The university cited as its reason an article that appeared in the Chinese press that made it appear as if the university was being intimidated into maintaining the relationship. More than 100 faculty at Chicago signed a petition last spring calling for the Confucius Institute’s closure. 

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