University cuts ties with Confucius Institute

Posted by Magnus Fiskesjö <nf42@cornell.edu>
Source: Pensacola News Journal (2/7/18)
UWF cuts ties with controversial Chinese-affiliated Confucius Institute
By Joseph Baucum

Citing a lack of student interest, the University of West Florida will not renew its contract this year with the Confucius Institute, a state-affiliated installation of the Chinese government that on Monday drew the condemnation of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for its representation of China’s history and policies at Florida academic institutions.

George Ellenberg, senior vice president and provost at UWF, said university officials started analyzing the school’s relationship with the institute last year. Funded and overseen by Hanban, an affiliate of the Chinese Ministry of Education, the institute started operations at the university in 2013.

As part of its memorandum of understanding with the institute, Ellenberg said the university partnered with the Sichuan International Studies University, a public university located in Chongqing, China, as its sister school. The arrangement allowed for students to study abroad, but Ellenberg said none opted for the semester-exchange program, which factored into the university’s decision, finalized in the fall, not to renew its contract with the Confucius Institute.

The contract expires in May.

“We determined that we weren’t really getting adequate return in terms of student interest and decided to discontinue it,” Ellenberg said. “We do that regularly. We look at all of our international agreements. We will renew or not renew based on what we think is the best for the university.”

The university’s announcement arrives a day after Rubio, a Republican from Miami-Dade, sent a letter to UWF President Martha Saunders, pleading with her to sever ties with the institute. Rubio, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, copied the university’s trustees on the letter.

“I remain deeply concerned by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in the United States,” Rubio warned in the letter. “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.”

Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to UWF President Martha Saunders asking with her to sever ties with the Confucius Institute.

Buy PhotoSen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to UWF President Martha Saunders asking with her to sever ties with the Confucius Institute. (Photo: John Blackie/jblackie@pnj.com)

The senator also sent the letter to officials at Miami Dade College, the University of South Florida in Tampa, the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and Cypress Bay High School in Broward County.

In the letter, Rubio wrote Confucius Institute instructors “are almost always hired in China and trained by the Chinese Ministry of Education” without the same hiring protections found in America. He argued the Chinese government, masquerading in the form of the institutes, represents and reflects “decidedly illiberal views of education and academic freedom.”

“We know from multiple reports that topics, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan, the fourth of June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, Falun Gong, and universal human rights, are off-limits at these institutes,” he wrote.

Rubio also cited a trio of universities — the University of Chicago, Pennsylvania State University and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario — that have shuttered their institutes.

In a response to the senator on Monday, Saunders wrote in a letter that the university determined it would end its relationship with the Confucius Institute in the fall and notified Hanban and the Sichuan International Studies University of the decision. She added officials from her university spoke with representatives from the Chinese university last week to re-affirm the decision to end the arrangement.

“I hope this resolves your concerns,” Saunders wrote to Rubio.

On Tuesday, the university had already wiped its website of all pages of the Confucius Institute’s existence in Pensacola.

Asked by the News Journal if the instructors at the institute had ever been censored from certain topics as Rubio asserted, Ellenberg repeated that the decision to not renew the contract with the institute stemmed from a lack of student interest.

He said the institute served primarily to offer Chinese language courses and sponsor cultural events such as the university’s Chinese New Year celebration. To his knowledge, he said the institute did not offer history lessons. As part of the arrangement, Hanban supplied support funding to maintain the institute and to help with cultural event sponsorships.

Ellenberg said no funds from Hanban went to other academic programs.

“We certainly appreciate Sen. Rubio sending the letter to the institution,” he said. “But we made the decision last fall to not renew the contract. The analysis we did of the program was based on the students and what we feel is in the best interest of the students.”

Joseph Baucum can be reached at jbaucum@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.

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