Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote a letter to Webster this summer cautioning the school against continuing relations with the Confucius Institute.
This summer, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley (R) wrote letters to Webster University and the University of Missouri. The Congressman cautioned the universities in regard to the schools’ Confucius Institutes and urged reconsideration of a Chinese government presence on both campuses.
Webster established its Confucius Institute in 2008, adding to the 89 universities across the U.S. to create such a program according to the National Association of Scholars. In a response to Hawley, President Beth Stroble released a statement solidifying the relationship between the school and the program. She said she had no plans to cut ties.
According to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, the program exists to educate people of all ages about Chinese culture through language classes and events. The program operates as a partnership between Webster, the Beijing Language and Culture University and the Office of Chinese Language Council International of the Chinese Ministry of Education (HANBAN.)
Hawley vocalized concerns regarding the safety of the institute’s presence in his letter, dated July 24. He said it posed threats to national security and spread Chinese propaganda.
“These Confucius Institutes are, in short, a tool for China to spread influence and exercise soft power in its rivalry with the United States,” Hawley said.
The Webster Confucius Institute director, Patty Li, declined to comment on the matter. She referred to Stroble’s letter to Hawley and said she wanted to move past the issue.
The letter came after three universities closed their institutes earlier this year. San Francisco State University, University of Oregon and Western Kentucky University all ceased Confucius Institute operations in April. Their reasons for doing so included a 2018 law prohibiting schools from operating such programs if it also received funds from the Defense Department-funded Chinese Language Flagship program.
Fifteen universities have closed institutes over the past two years, though not all cited the new law. Hawley said in his letter he believed a Chinese government funded program threatened academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has spoken out with similar concerns.
Kelly-Kate Pease works at Webster as an international relations professor. In 2008, she taught in China for eight weeks and said she gained a look into how academic freedoms could be slighted.
Pease said she expected full operations of the library and Internet access in China, but both were censored. Her students could not always do research for their projects because of restrictions.
Even though problems existed, Pease said interacting with others can bring forth positive aspects for everyone involved.
“You might want to engage and maybe you can change China, right?” Pease said. “Maybe you can have a good influence on them, and you might learn something from them as well. There’s always reasons to engage, but there are issues related to academic freedom.”
Stroble assured Hawley of the institute’s place on campus, saying the university values academic freedom, diversity and cultural education. The University of Missouri’s reply said the school would investigate Hawley’s claim before making a decision regarding the status of the institute.
“We take academic freedom very seriously and will not sacrifice it for any relationship,” Stroble said. “Our relationship with HANBAN expressly reserves for Webster University the right to determine the curricula and the manner of instruction for all programs that we offer. Nothing in our agreements concerning the Confucius Institute restricts us from addressing any academic subject.”
Despite Pease’s experiences, she believes Webster made the right decision, choosing not to allow Hawley to dictate the school’s decisions. She said the government should not interfere in matters of private schools and saw the actions as inappropriate.
Pease also, however, said the University of Missouri’s “neutral” response permitted an opportunity for investigation.
“That’s kind of ironic that you’d have concerns about the Confucius Institute interfering with the academic freedom at a university and then our own government doing the same thing,” Pease said.
Pease suspected the current trade negotiations between the U.S. and China increased Hawley’s urgency in the matter. She said his relationship and support of Donald Trump affected his judgement.
Hawley concluded his letter reaffirming his position and offering his aid.
“I respectfully and strongly urge you to reconsider the costs and risks that come with allowing a Confucius Institute to remain on your campus, and with entering any other agreements with the Chinese government,” Hawley said. “My office stands ready to assist you and to address and questions or concerns.