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More Scrutiny for Confucius Institutes; One to Close

February 6, 2018
 
 

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio wrote to four Florida colleges and universities Monday asking them to close their Confucius Institutes, centers of Chinese language and cultural education that are housed in U.S. colleges or schools and funded and staffed by a Chinese government entity. One of those colleges -- the University of West Florida -- said in a statement it had already decided to close its Confucius Institute.

In his letter, Rubio cited “mounting concern about the Chinese government’s increasingly aggressive attempts to use ‘Confucius Institutes’ and other means to influence foreign academic institutions and critical analysis of China’s past history and present policies.”

“Given China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad, I respectfully urge you to consider terminating your Confucius Institute agreement,” Rubio, a Republican from Florida, wrote in letters to Miami Dade College and the Universities of North Florida, South Florida and West Florida, as well as to Cypress Bay High School.

In a statement, the University of West Florida said it decided last fall to terminate its Confucius Institute agreement and that its leadership spoke last week with representatives from their Chinese partner university to inform them that UWF would not renew the contract when it expires in May.

“The decision was a result of a review of the program because the contract was expiring,” a UWF spokeswoman, Megan Gonzalez, said. “We concluded that we were not getting adequate return in terms of student interest, among other things, and decided to discontinue.”

The three other Florida colleges that Rubio said he sent the letter to either did not respond to messages or declined to comment on the substance of the senator’s letter Monday afternoon. Adam Freeman, a spokesman for the University of South Florida, confirmed receipt of the letter and said, “We will respond to Senator Rubio in the near future.”

About 100 U.S. colleges have opened Confucius Institutes despite the concerns about academic freedom that have accompanied their establishment. A couple of institutes have closed, including those at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Chicago. More than 100 Chicago faculty members signed a petition calling for the closure of Chicago’s Confucius Institute over concerns about the university ceding control of faculty hiring and curricular matters to a Chinese government entity.

In 2014, the American Association of University Professors called on American universities to end their involvement with Confucius Institutes unless they can renegotiate their agreements to ensure that “the university has unilateral control … over all academic matters, including recruitment of teachers, determination of curriculum, and choice of texts” and that “the university affords Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights … that it affords all other faculty in the university.” The AAUP also called on colleges to make their Confucius Institute agreements public. 

More recently, the National Association of Scholars, which is perceived by many in higher education as being aligned with the political right, called for colleges to close their Confucius Institutes. The organization said in a report on the institutes that "to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy."

Proponents of the institutes argue, on the other hand, that they are legitimate vehicles for cultural and academic exchange, and that they've provided welcome resources for Chinese language and cultural education at a time when resources for the humanities have been shrinking.

The Rubio letter represents at least the second time Republican senators have called on colleges in their home states to reject Chinese government-linked funding this year. In January, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas wrote to the president of the University of Texas at Austin to discourage the university from accepting funding for a new China Public Policy Center from a Hong Kong-based foundation due to concerns about the foundation's ties to the Chinese Communist Party. UT Austin president Greg Fenves wrote in response that he had decided prior to receiving Cruz's letter that the university would not accept the funding.

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