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Can Confucius Institute lecturers speak their mind?

By Ken Johnson and Tom Spencer

Some fear that the University of New Hampshire has foreign lecturers and teaching staff who are not free to speak their own minds. The teachers are part of the Confucius Institute, and schools across the continent are considering whether to keep Confucius Institutes in their academic programs.

Amid national scrutiny of the Confucius Institute, the University of New Hampshire chapter (CI-UNH) is under review by a committee organized by the College of Liberal Arts, as their original five-year contract comes to a close.

Hanban (the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language), a division of the Chinese Ministry of Education, describes the Confucius Institute program as, “… non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries … Confucius Institutes classrooms adopt flexible teaching patterns and adapt to suit local conditions when teaching Chinese language and promoting culture in foreign primary schools, secondary schools, communities and enterprises.”

CI-UNH is a collaboration between UNH and Chengdu University in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. CI-UNH opened in October 2010 and currently has four staff members: CI-UNH Co-Director Yige Wang (also director of the Chengdu Program and a lecturer in Chinese); lecturers in Chinese Lili Guo, Xi Yang and lecturer on the UNH-Manchester campus Jia Xie .

The COLA Confucius Institute Review Committee consists of eight members, including a faculty senate representative, a representative from the Confucius Institute and a representative from UNH-Manchester.

“This is the fifth year and before we renew, Dean [Kenneth] Fuld has charged a committee of faculty and China specialists who are working this fall to review what works well and what doesn’t work well, and I’ve always maintained that the minute that the university feels its own values are threatened, we’re ending the relationship,” said John Kirkpatrick, associate dean of COLA. “So they are going to provide some recommendations to Dean Fuld if we decide to renew that relationship, and that committee wants to be somewhat closeted to allow them to have open deliberation.”

The committee contains members who are for, neutral and against CI-UNH, Kirkpatrick said.

“The review is being conducted as part of our contract renewal process,” said Erika Mantz, director of UNH Media Relations.

The COLA committee is chaired by history professor Jeffry Diefendorf.

“Dean Fuld of Liberal Arts asked me to chair a committee to review the activity and quality of the Confucius Institute at UNH,” Diefendorf said., chair of the COLA Confucius Institute Review Committee. “It is entirely normal that programs at UNH are periodically reviewed, a process that can help sustain or change programs. This committee is reviewing the Confucius Institute now because the agreement between the Chinese and UNH is due for renewal next year.

“The primary goals of the Confucius Institute at UNH are teaching Chinese language courses and presenting features of Chinese culture,” Diefendorf said. “It also does this for K-12 schools, and it encourages UNH students and faculty to visit China and helps bring Chinese scholars from Chengdu University to speak at UNH.”

With basic Chinese language courses and presentations on Chinese culture, it would seem that there wouldn’t be much to review. However, the review spans a large period of time.

“ The review committee is currently gathering and discussing information about what has happened since the Institute was begun here and about activities this year,” Diefendorf said. “Consequently, as committee chair, I must say that we are not yet ready to offer a report to Dean Fuld.”

Despite the review not being completed yet, the committee has made progress and has an estimated completion date.

“The review is about mid-way and should be completed early next semester,” Mantz said.

So far, not all of the reports on the Confucius Institute at UNH have been good. The academic affairs committee of the faculty senate prepared a report on the Confucius Institute in April 2014 stating that the “overall mission of the Confucius Institute is propaganda on behalf of the Chinese government and its vision of Chinese culture and history.”

Though the reports may not all be positive, the overall goal seems to be to assess the situation fairly and objectively, as well as to be consistent with the faculty senate’s function to periodically review academic programs.

“In spring semester 2013-2014, the faculty senate passed a motion which, in essence, expressed support for the College of Liberal Arts’ planned review of the Confucius Institute, and asked the dean of COLA that the faculty senate be involved in the review,” said Alberto Manalo, chair of the faculty senate. “… The faculty senate, in its support for a review of the Confucius Institute, had the same goal as in the other program reviews in which it had participated: to assess how well the program meets the university’s academic mission.”

Manalo also said that the faculty senate recognized the important role that CI-UNH has been playing in Chinese instruction at both UNH campuses. The COLA report will need to be completed before the faculty senate can issue a decision on the review.

But the report also noted there had been no controversies with the Confucius Institute at UNH.

“Nobody on my committee … thinks there have been any incidents at UNH to worry about,” said Michael Ferber, the chairman of the academic affairs committee.

“I’m not aware of any problems with [UNH’s Mandarin professors],” Ferber said. “The students seem to like them, classes are going well, [students] are learning Mandarin; that’s all fine. Our concern is with whether we should be having any lecturers and teaching staff who are not free to speak their own minds and who are beholden to a totalitarian regime.”

The national American Association of University Professors (AAUP) produced a report about the Confucius Institute in June. According to this report, many Confucius Institutes operate with “unacceptable concessions to the political aims and practices of the government of China.”

One of the national report’s primary objections is with the fact that Confucius Institutes are supervised by the Hanban, a close affiliate of the Chinese state.

The national report states that the promotion of China’s state agenda occurs through staff recruitment and control, curriculum choice and “restriction of debate.”

“Allowing any third party control of academic matters is inconsistent with the principles of academic freedom, shared governance and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities,” the report states.

Deanna Wood, president of the UNH chapter of the AAUP, made an official statement on Oct. 15 that the university’s relationship with the Hanban should be reviewed.

AAUP UNH agreed with the national board that the contract with the Confucius Institute should not be renewed unless certain conditions are met.

These conditions were that the university retains complete control over teacher recruitment; choice of text; that teachers in the Confucius Institute have the same academic freedom as all other university faculty and that the details of the Hanban and UNH contract be made available to all members of the UNH community.

The statement from AAUP UNH does not suggest there have been any controversial incidents from the Confucius Institute on campus. The report is primarily concerned with a perceived conflict of interest at the local level.

“The faculty senate … simply took the stand that there are enough questions about the Confucius Institute that an ad hoc committee should be appointed to look into it,” Ferber said.

“[Confucius Institute professors] have freedom of speech here; they can say whatever they like at this school,” Ferber said. “But they can’t say anything that departs majorly from the official line or they will be in trouble when they get back home. And I just think that’s intolerable for any academic appointment.”

While some at UNH express serious concern over the potential problem, overall opinions of the CI vary.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from anybody, colleagues or students, about any censorship, any not-being-able-to-talk-about-anything,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t think we’ve had some of the problems that might exist in some other campuses, to my knowledge. … The minute we would have those at the university, I think we would terminate the relationship because we do subscribe to the AAUP principles of academic freedom.”

When asked if she knew of any problems that had happened on the UNH campus, Wood said, “absolutely none.”

“Since each CI is different in operation and structure, I can’t speak for others,” Yige Wang, CI-UNH co-director, said. “As some CIs hit the 10 year mark, a few may decide not to continue for various reasons. … We are glad to hear Tufts University will establish a CI, and we look forward to working with its CI as we do with other five area CIs for valuable resource sharing in the future.”

While Wang is optimistic, Wood fears for the legal protection of the people.

“These people who are teaching in this program have no access to an HR grievance process, I don’t know what kind of due process protection they have,” Wood said. “Those are the two things that I worry most about are the guarantee of academic freedom for the people teaching in the program and the accountability of the program to the university not knowing who pays what for what.”

On a deeper level, Wood said UNH can hire good teachers on its own without the need to use other countries’ instructors.

“We are an institution that prides itself on our ability to hire the best people and to do the best teaching, why are we outsourcing this, we are not the University of Phoenix…,” Wood said. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

Wood also highlighted the other areas and departments that are contracted out.

“I think this is a very interesting issue, it’s one thing to contract out housekeeping or food vending, it’s another thing to contract out your classrooms,” Wood said.

Kirkpatrick said Chengdu University offers a selection of lecturers. Wang reviews the selections and decides who to invite.

“The first year was a little rocky, because it was our first year of the relationship, but since that time they really have been wonderful,” Kirkpatrick said. “And they have been fully integrated in the department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.”

According to Kirkpatrick, Spanish, French and Italian nationals teach languages at UNH. Despite the popularity of some other languages, not as many Americans are fluent in Mandarin.

“The number of Americans who are fluent in Mandarin are not a whole lot of people,” Kirkpatrick said. “A native speaker knows the nuances of language better than someone who is learning it as a second language.”

Wood’s worries are not about the language teaching. Rather, Wood is concerned with the cultural teachings, especially because it’s difficult to monitor what is said in a classroom.

“You can go into a classroom and pretty well judge about what’s being taught, but it’s much more difficult to gauge what is not being taught,” Wood said. “If these are just language classes that’s one thing, but the institute reports to teach history and culture as well and for any sovereign state that’s politically sensitive.

“I honestly have no idea what they are teaching, are they teaching the cultural revolution, are they teaching what happened in Tiananmen Square, are they teaching about the student demonstrations in Hong Kong?” Wood continued. “I have absolutely no idea but I know that we here at UNH should be able to inform our students about the full spectrum of the culture and history of any part of the world.”

Aside from classroom experience, the Confucius Institute also brings cultural events to the UNH campus, Kirkpatrick said.

Since September, Wang said that CI-UNH has brought the Wenqin Arts Troupe from Zhejiang University in China to campus, a Tai Chi class during U-Day, a Chinese culture night, an exhibition of early Chinese writing on bamboo and wood scripts and held a Chinese movie night.

Later in November, they will sponsor a Zen and Chinese Tea Culture night, a sampling of popular Chinese tea; Tai Chi and martial arts classes; a Chinese buffet dinner; a Chinese culture crafts table with Chinese calligraphy; games from China with Chinese Mahjong and Go and hands-on Chinese food all during International Education Week.

UNH doesn’t let the relationship be one-sided. During January break, UNH sends some students and faculty to China.

J-Term study abroad programs are hard to keep up and are often the result of personal relationships, Kirkpatrick said. With the relationship with Chengdu University, students from UNH are going over there to study and faculty are going over there to learn about the culture.

“I am very happy that we have that relationship with Chengdu,” Kirkpatrick said. For the last three to four years they have sent over 15 leaders who have learned how we operate American universities, including academic freedom.

“On balance I think it’s a good thing and I think our ability to understand Chinese culture and history which the CI does bring to this campus is a good thing, and then the outreach it allows us to do in the school systems in this state that wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to offer language instruction,” Kirkpatrick said.

The debate regarding the Confucius Institute is going on nationally as well as in other countries also with no clear answer or solution, but with similar questions being asked.

Two large universities have recently made the news over ending their Confucius Institute programs: Penn State University in Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago in Illinois, after suspending negotiations at the time their contract was up.

“We can confirm that Penn State is ending its relationship with the Confucius Institute at the end of this fiscal year, Dec. 31, 2014,” Susan Welch, Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University, said. “… 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.”

Penn State is not ending their Asian studies program. Welch said that over the last five years, the program has developed into a full department with 60 undergraduate majors, more than 100 minors and 12 graduate students.

“The University of Chicago has informed Madame Xu Lin, director-general of Hanban and chief executive of the Confucius Institute Headquarters, of the university’s decision to suspend negotiations for the renewal of the agreement for a second term of the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago,” a press release issued by the University of Chicago said. “… recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership.”

McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, also closed their institute over issues with the program.

“The decision to close the institute was made after concerns were raised about the screening process used in China for the selection of teaching assistants,” a press release from McMaster University stated. “The process excluded certain classes of applicants, which is not consistent with the university’s values of equality and exclusivity, nor with McMaster’s anti-discrimination policy.”

Not all decisions to end the connection with Confucius Institute have had to do with any issues related to the institute. Université de Sherbrooke, in Sherbrooke, Quebec , Canada, just had a lack of interest in the program.

“The Université de Sherbrooke has not renewed its partnership with Confucius Institute due to the lack of interest from the students,” said Judith Lavallée, head of media relations at Université de Sherbrooke. “Furthermore, the Confucius Institute could not meet the UdeS’s new strategic plan which aims to develop research relationship to attract more Ph.D. students.”

As some universities are cutting ties, other universities are continuing their Confucius Institute programs and still others are adding them. The University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, has continued their relationship with the Confucius Institute.

“The Confucius Institute at the University of Pittsburgh continues to provide education in Chinese language and culture throughout the region,” Nicole Constable, director of the Asian Studies Center at University of Pittsburgh, said. “Each Confucius Institute has a different purpose and mission, and the mission is developed according to the needs of the university in which the institute resides.”

“The University of Pittsburgh strongly supports academic freedom,” said Lawrence Feick, director of the University Center for International Studies at University of Pittsburgh. “As is the case with other sponsored programs, the university would not continue to work with the Confucius Institute if doing so compromised academic freedom at the university.”

The University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, is continuing their program, although it serves on a limited basis.

“China is an important partner to the University of Saskatchewan, given that more than half of our international students come from China,” David Parkinson, vice dean of University of Saskatchewan Humanities and Fine Arts. “As a university, we see value in promoting Chinese language and cultural activities to our students and members of the Saskatoon community, and in building connections with universities in China through the Confucius Institute to foster student and faculty exchanges and partnerships.”

“That said, however, the Confucius Institute at the University of Saskatchewan is limited in its scope to basic non-credit language and painting courses,” Parkinson said. “These are taught by graduate students from China who are not U of S employees. This approach provides some introductory language training, enables cultural outreach to our community and strengthens our ties with institutions in China, while protecting academic freedom of our faculty.”

The Chinese Ambassador Sun Guoxiang will be visiting UNH on Nov. 14th during the review period. “The ambassador’s visit is not related to the review,” Mantz said.

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