Chicago suspends Confucius Institute negotiations

By Elizabeth Redden, for Inside Higher Ed

September 29, 2014

The University of Chicago has suspended negotiations to renew its agreement to host a Confucius Institute after objecting to an unflattering article that appeared in the Chinese press.

The decision follows a petition, signed by more than 100 faculty members this spring, calling for the closure of the institute. The petition raised concerns that in hosting the Chinese government-funded centre for research and language teaching, Chicago was ceding control over faculty hiring, course content and programming to the Confucius Institute headquarters in Beijing, known as Hanban.

The decision means that the Confucius Institute at Chicago ceased to exist from today, when the current five-year agreement expired, although its director, Dali Yang, said that the institute would continue to support existing projects.

“Since 2009 the University of Chicago and Hanban have worked in partnership to develop the [Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago], which has benefited research on China and collaboration between the University of Chicago and academic institutions in China,” Chicago said in a statement. “The university and Hanban have engaged in several months of good faith efforts and steady progress toward a new agreement. However, recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”

Chicago officials pointed to an interview with the Confucius Institute headquarters chief, Xu Lin, that was published in the Chinese-language Jiefang Daily.

The article states that after the faculty petition, Xu Lin wrote a letter to Chicago’s president and called the university representative in Beijing (where Chicago has a research centre), “with only one line: ‘If your school decides to withdraw, I will agree to it.’” The article adds that “her attitude made the other side anxious. The school quickly responded that it will continue to properly manage the Confucius Institute.”

Hanban responded to Chicago’s decision in a written statement:  “Hanban thinks it’s a pity that the University of Chicago has made the public statement before finding out the truth. Since Confucius Institute is a collaboration program, both sides can make a choice.”

Chicago’s decision comes as a blow to the Confucius Institute project just as it is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. Since the first institute was founded in 2004, hundreds of Confucius Institutes have been established around the globe, including more than 90 at universities in the US (including at such elite institutions as Columbia and Stanford Universities and, of course, Chicago).

The institutes, which are typically funded with an operating budget from Hanban and staffed in part with language teachers hired by Hanban, have provided a welcome and generous injection of funding for colleges and universities who want to expand their Chinese language teaching. They have been likened to other government-sponsored programmes that promote language learning and cultural programming – entities such as the British Institute, the Alliance Françaises and Germany’s Goethe Institutes – but the key difference, critics say, is that those other entities are not embedded in universities that have their own academic independence to maintain.

Criticism of the Confucius Institutes has increased in recent months. In June, the American Association of University Professors called on universities to cancel their agreements with Confucius Institutes unless they can renegotiate them to ensure certain terms can be met. The AAUP statement asserted that “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.”

Later in the summer, reports of Hanban-ordered censorship at a European Association for Chinese Studies conference, in Portugal, raised further concerns.

Back at Chicago, a three-member faculty panel that had reviewed the previous Confucius Institute agreement had recommended renewal of the contract “but only if some serious changes are made”. Among the changes, the panel recommended replacing the three instructors hired by Hanban and the Confucius Institute with ones hired directly by Chicago’s East Asian languages department. The panel also recommended making explicit that Hanban would not have line-item veto power over the Confucius Institute’s budget requests.

Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell distinguished service professor of the history of religions at Chicago and an organiser of the anti-Confucius Institute petition, said that he believed it likely that Chicago was receiving pressure both from its Chinese government partners and from the faculty. Lincoln took heart from the final line of Chicago’s statement about the suspension of negotiations, which reads: “As always, the University is guided by its core values and faculty leadership in all matters of academic importance.”

“I get the sense that the administration felt a tension between its Chinese partners on the one hand and its faculty on the other. As events unfolded, they came to feel that the former were heavy-handed, condescending and difficult, while the latter – who may also have been difficult at times – accurately represented the institution’s core values when they argued against having a [Confucius Institute] here,” Lincoln said via email.

“Given that analysis, it became easy to make a decision, even if it meant some financial sacrifices. I’m certainly not sure that is what happened and this is just speculation on my part, but I find it a plausible scenario. I do think that in the end our top administrators defended not only the dignity of our institution, but the integrity of the academy in general.”

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