Despite urgings from educational groups to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, Webster University has no plans to follow suit.
The Confucius Institute, which was created in 2004, exists on 100 American college campuses to provide education about the Chinese language, art and culture to the universities they partner with. The universities also collaborate with the institute to provide language and culture classes to area K-12 schools, high schools and adults continuing their education.
In the last year, however, the controversy surrounding the Confucius Institute has increased and the number of institutes in America has decreased.
In June, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a report on their website encouraging universities to cut ties with the Confucius Institute, unless they could renegotiate their contracts to allow the universities more control over the curriculum taught by the institute professors and the textbooks used.
Some of the criticisms of the Confucius Institute have been that the Hanban intrudes on academic freedom and censorship of certain issues. In May 2013, the Chronicle for Higher Education reported Chinese leaders banned seven topics from being discussed in the classroom. Those topics include freedom of the press, universal human rights and mistakes by the Chinese Communist Party.
In the last month, both the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University allowed their contracts with the Confucius Institute to expire without a chance of renewal.
Deborah Pierce, director for both the Center for International Education and Webster University’s Confucius Institute, said no such concerns have arisen to give the university reason not to continue their relationship with the institute. Webster University, who established their own Confucius Institute in 2008, renewed their contract with the institute in 2012 for another five years.
“I understand why people have fears, I really do. I was a professor for 30 years and I would never, ever agree to anything that I felt meddled with academic freedom and would not be involved in anything where that was the case,” Pierce said.
The AAUP report came six months after a similar report was issued by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the equivalent of the AAUP, urging Canadian universities to do the same.
Confucius institutes and universities collaborate with one another only after an application from the university is accepted by the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, also known as the Hanban. The Hanban provides the financial support for the Confucius Institute, as well as professors to teach the courses, while the universities are required to provide administrative necessities, like office space.
Pierce acknowledged that these instances could happen at different universities, but each experience with the Confucius Institute is different. Pierce said Webster has never experienced any censorship from the institute when it came to human rights or political issues concerning China. She said classrooms are being taught about Tiananmen Square and the controversy surrounding Tibet’s existence as a part of China or an independent country.
“We have never had anyone from the Confucius Institute say ‘You shouldn’t teach this,’ or ‘You shouldn’t mention this.’ There has never been any kind of academic freedom involvement,” Pierce said.
Marshall Sahlins, a professor emeritus for the University of Chicago, said Hanban is not only providing financial backing for the Confucius Institutes, but also providing instructions in censorship for the professors who come over from China to teach in the institutes.
“These teachers are trained in avoiding and averting or diverting questions that are considered sensitive in Chinese politics and thus introduce self-censorship into the universities. The same is true of the lectures and conferences and research proposals, which are subsidized by the chinese authorities,” Sahlins said.
Students even came to Sahlins, telling him about their experiences with the censorship in class.
“When it came to the subject of Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the discussion was diverted to things like pandas,” Sahlin said.
Sahlins said the institute is sharing not only the culture and the art of China, but its political ideals as well.
“What we are doing is becoming a branch of the Chinese political system which is transmitting the rules of discourse that appropriated China to American colleges, universities and K-12 schools,” Sahlins said.
Pierce said she does not believe any of these concerns about the Confucius Institute apply to Webster.
“(The professors) have never told us what textbooks we can use. I choose them with the language department and with our Chinese teachers. We have never been told what course we can or cannot teach. We have taught Chinese culture classes and we have not been told what we can or cannot teach in those courses,” Pierce said.