NC State is closing its Chinese-backed Confucius Institute. Is politics behind decision?
Posted on November 21, 2018 in In the News
N.C. State University will shut down its Confucius Institute, a Chinese language and culture center that has been funded by the Chinese government for 12 years.
Leaders of the center were informed in August by NCSU officials that the institute would cease all operations by June of next year. The news was posted recently on the institute’s website.
NCSU Provost Warwick Arden said the primary reason for the closure was to better align the university’s China and Asia programs with the rest of the university’s global strategy. But he added, “we’re certainly aware of the concerns that are circulating around Confucius Institutes.”
The shuttering comes at a time of more intense scrutiny of the more than 100 Confucius Institutes on U.S. college campuses, and pressure from U.S. political leaders who say the centers pose a danger.
In February, FBI director Christopher Wray told the Senate intelligence committee that the FBI was “watching warily” Confucius Institutes, according to a report by McClatchy. He warned of Chinese operatives infiltrating college campuses and “a level of naiveté” by academics in the U.S., according to the report.
“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere,” Wray said, according to the McClatchy story. “But they’re taking advantage of it.”
Arden emphasized that there had been no problems with NCSU’s Confucius Institute, which has played a key role in expanding Chinese language instruction in North Carolina.
“Just to be clear, we have no evidence and no even suspicion that anything untoward was happening on our campus,” Arden said in an interview. “The institute does fund instructors to be here from China, visiting scholars to be here, predominantly providing Chinese language instruction.”
In the first 10 years of its operation, 30,000 students studied Chinese through the institute and more than 636,000 people have attended cultural events, according to the Confucius Institute website.
Impact across NC
The programs were open to students inside and outside N.C. State, and the institute trained 1,300 Chinese language instructors throughout North Carolina. The center set up Confucius classrooms at Central Carolina Community College, St. Augustine’s University, Enloe High School and Concord High School in Cabarrus County.
“I’m very proud of our institute and how we have partnered with N.C. State and with the community to help meet a need that the state was not able to provide elsewhere,” the institute’s director, Anna Dunaway, said in an interview. “I’ve been disappointed with the abrupt ending of it, and without any discussion.”
The institute’s Chinese language classes are open to anyone, at a low cost. Instructors are from China on assignments of two years at a time, and paid by the Chinese government. Dunaway said the faculty would have to leave the United States by the end of June. The institute received about $300,000 annually in recent years from Hanban, a Chinese language office affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.
The Chinese instructors have also been instrumental in N.C. State’s language programs, teaching language lab classes on campus, said Nathaniel Isaacson, associate professor of foreign languages and literature.
Isaacson, who directs NCSU’s Chinese language program and also serves on the Confucius Institute advisory board, said the state’s K-12 schools may be hurt the most by the closure of the institute.
“The really big loss for the state of North Carolina is that Confucius Institute was helping identify and train teachers for immersion programs and high school classrooms throughout the state,” Isaacson said in an interview. “What they were doing was providing me with students who already had a really strong background in Chinese who were then coming into the foreign language program here just looking really great.”
Now, he said, the university should concentrate on paying for the Chinese programs that have a strong demand. “If we’re concerned about these things being funded by the outside, we should make sure we’re funding it from within,” he said.
The political climate
Isaacson, who had no role in the university’s closure of the institute, speculated that it might have been an economic decision driven by the political climate.
In August, the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Donald Trump prohibited Pentagon-funded language programs at universities that also have Confucius Institutes, unless those universities secured a waiver, according to multiple media accounts about the defense spending bill.
That provision followed months of political pressure exerted on universities by members of Congress, most notably Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has been a critic of Confucius Institutes. In February, Rubio wrote to five colleges in Florida, urging them to terminate their agreements with the Chinese government, citing “China’s aggressive campaign to ‘infiltrate’ American classrooms, stifle free inquiry, and subvert free expression both at home and abroad,” according to the letter posted on Rubio’s website.
At least one campus, the University of North Florida, closed its institute in August. Penn State and University of Chicago ended their Confucius Institutes several years ago.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said last year he had asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate Confucius Institutes and asked all host colleges to make their Confucius contracts accessible to the public, according to the Congressional Record.
Deyu Xie, a professor of plant and microbial biology at N.C. State, is sorry to see the closure of the institute, which has done “a wonderful job for our campus, faculty, students and outside the campus, like at middle schools and community colleges and all those things,” he said.
Xie, who serves on the institute’s advisory board, said he doesn’t know exactly why the university is shutting it down, but he blames the current political climate for U.S.-China relations.
Arden acknowledged that NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson had received inquiries from those with questions about the Confucius Insitute, but no “specific factual concerns.”
“What we really wanted to do was develop a China/Asia strategy that was independent, that was not funded by the Chinese government, that was consistent with our strategy in other areas of the world, and refocus on our core mission of opening opportunities for our faculty and our students.,” he said, adding, “ We felt that this was a good time to make the transition.”