The University of North Florida will close its Confucius Institute, a center of Chinese language education funded by the Chinese government, in February 2019 after a six-month transition period. UNF is at least the third university to announce plans to close its Confucius Institute this year as the institutes have come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers concerned about Chinese government influence activities.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, had sent UNF and other Florida colleges a letter earlier this year urging them to close their Confucius Institutes, which he described as “Chinese-run institutes that use the teaching of Chinese language and culture as a tool to expand the political influence of the [People's Republic of China].”
“These institutes are overseen by a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Education, and are instructed to only teach versions of Chinese history, culture or current events that are explicitly approved by the Chinese government and Communist Party,” Rubio wrote.
UNF’s brief announcement says its decision to close the institute after a six-month transition period followed a review of the CI’s activities.
“After reviewing the classes, activities and events sponsored over the past four years and comparing them with the mission and goals of the university, it was determined that they weren't aligned,” says the statement, which was published in a newsletter for faculty and staff. A UNF media relations representative did not return requests for further comment.
Reached by phone, the director of UNF's Confucius Institute, Ronghua Ouyang, declined to comment. He referred questions to Joanne Davis, a member of the Confucius Institute board and part-time French instructor at UNF who formerly served as supervisor of world languages for the Duval County Public Schools. Many Confucius Institutes, like UNF’s, are involved in outreach to local K-12 schools.
"I have served as supervisor of world languages for the Duval County Public Schools, and we have been the recipient of, at this point it’s five Confucius Institute teachers for the elementary, middle and high school levels. They have done a superb job. This year it was announced that Duval County Public Schools has a $60 million deficit, and it would be very, very challenging to have the caliber of Chinese program that we have in our schools [otherwise], so it’s been a tremendous gift," Davis said.
"I've had the privilege to work intimately with the Confucius teachers on curriculum and lesson plans. I’ve observed them; I support them. I’ve been in the classroom a great deal, probably more than anyone, and I have never observed a political agenda of any kind. There's never a discussion of politics, and the teachers have been extremely skilled," Davis said.
Confucius Institutes have been controversial on U.S. campuses. Many educators have welcomed the resources they bring to the table for Chinese language education and for cultural exchange activities, but others have expressed concern about the academic freedom implications of universities ceding control over curricular matters and the hiring of instructors to an entity of the Chinese government. In 2014 the American Association of University Professors recommended that colleges close their institutes unless they could renegotiate their contracts with the Chinese government to ensure "unilateral control … over all academic matters" and academic freedom rights for CI teachers. The AAUP also urged colleges with Confucius Institutes to make their agreements for the institutes public.