UI proposing China-funded 'Confucius Institute' on campus

UI proposing China-funded 'Confucius Institute' on campus

This story has been corrected to clarify the source of research funding and academic affiliation for the new director of the proposed Confucius Institute.

URBANA — The University of Illinois is proposing a new campus institute funded by the Chinese government to support the study of Chinese language and culture.

The proposal calls for the "Confucius Institute" to conduct academic research on Chinese language proficiency testing; teach free Chinese-language classes and do cultural outreach in local schools and the community; and provide general support for Chinese studies on campus.

It would be set up for five years with a $150,000 yearly grant from China's Ministry of Education, matched by funds from the Urbana campus. The UI could also submit proposals for additional funding from China's Ministry of Education.

The institute would be a unit within the UI's Office of International Programs & Studies, which would collaborate closely with the College of Education/Department of Educational Psychology, the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, and the Chinese-language program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Its board of directors would include representatives from the UI and its Chinese partner on the project, Jiangxi Normal University, as well as the Confucius Institute headquarters, according to the UI proposal.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise signed a tentative memorandum of understanding for the institute with the Chinese government last fall, pending formal approval by the Urbana campus senate, UI trustees and the Illinois Board of Higher Education, officials said. The senate approved the proposal with little discussion Monday.

First established in 2004, Confucius Institutes now operate on more than 300 campuses around the world, including most Big Ten schools, officials said. They are overseen by the Office of Chinese Language Council International, better known by its Chinese acronym Hanban, a nonprofit affiliated with the Ministry of Education.

Other countries have nonprofits that promote their language and culture — such as the British Council or Germany's Goethe Institute — but they're typically not on university campuses. Because the Confucius Institutes are sponsored by the Chinese government, that has raised questions about academic freedom and stirred accusations of espionage and surveillance of Chinese students abroad. Some schools have opted not to host them.

UI officials said they talked with colleagues on campuses with institutes but heard no evidence to support those claims.

Wolfgang Schloer, interim director of International Programs and Studies, acknowledged that the Chinese government has a self-interest in setting up the institutes.

"The concern was not so much about the source of funding but about the potential for meddling or influencing the teaching and research agenda on campus," he said. "That really does not bear out in practice."

The institutes often support activities that already existed on the campuses and typically stay away from "direct academic issues," he said.

UI officials noted that the proposed institute would undergo a review after five years to evaluate its success in meeting its mission, attracting external funding and preserving "institutional autonomy, neutrality and academic freedom."

If the review is positive, a proposal to make the institute permanent would be submitted to the campus senate. If not, the institute could be abolished.

The proposal went through several revisions by the senate's General University Policy Committee — including the addition of the five-year review — to address concerns about academic freedom and governance, said Nicholas Burbules, professor of education and committee chairman.

Burbules said committee members heard "consistently positive feedback" from other schools with similar institutes, including Michigan State.

"I think this is pretty low risk," Burbules said.

While the board of directors includes representatives of the Chinese government, "the activities of the center are fully within our control," Burbules said.

Schloer said Confucius Institutes all have a similar board structure, and "to my knowledge, that really hasn't created any problems." The boards have no day-to-day operational control, he said.

"If at any point we were doing something here and felt as if that was being vetoed or interfered with by any external influence, then again that would be a reason to discontinue the project," Burbules said.

Most institutes on other campuses offer noncredit Chinese classes at local schools and host cultural events, so the added research focus at the UI would be somewhat unusual, Schloer said.

The UI proposal originated with a professor of educational psychology, Hua-Hua Chang, who does research on validating language proficiency tests, in particular one that measures proficiency in Mandarin Chinese, Schloer said. The campus hopes to play a large role in current research efforts to develop an online proficiency test.

Chang would have a part-time appointment as director of the proposed Confucius Institute, which would have a small office as well as a full-time program coordinator and up to four graduate assistants, depending on the level of funding.

A faculty senator on Monday wondered about a potential conflict of interest, as Chang will be an honorary guest professor at Jiangxi Normal University. Chang said later his only appointment is with the UI, and the title with Jiangxi is strictly honorary.

The funding for Chang's research will come directly from the institute, not Jiangxi, and would be under the UI's control, Burbules said.

Schloer said the campus has had "healthy discussions" about the focus of the institute and how it should relate to various academic departments.

"We really are optimistic that this will bring additional research funding to this campus," Schloer added.

The institute would support existing community outreach efforts by the Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, and provide money for travel to China and research on Chinese issues, he said. Jiangxi also would send language instructors who would be deployed in local schools, he said.

"I think it will be a great boost for Chinese studies on campus and for the community," Schloer said.


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Sid Saltfork wrote on February 06, 2013 at 10:02 am

How about an institute teaching Farsi?  Maybe, the government of Iran would provide $150,000 to create a Farsi culture, and language institute.  I am not opposed one bit to the teaching of Mandarin.  However, the U of I in it's quest to dig up money should be cautious about taking money from China.  The U of I realized years ago that foriegn students bring in three times the tuition than state students.  How many Chinese students now attend the U of I; and what is the decrease in state students? 

Alexander wrote on February 06, 2013 at 10:02 am

You're conflating multiple things. First Iran hasn't made such an offer (BTW, you'd probably be OK with it if there was an offer from, say Germany, wouldn't you?). Second, Iran and China are not comparable despite what you might hear. Third, a quick google search:


would show that there are 15% out of state (domestic) and 13.01% international (of which there is a large percentage from Asia), so why pick on the Chinese students? Is there something you don't like about them? 


Sid Saltfork wrote on February 06, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I am not picking on the Chinese students.  I am picking on the U of I, your employer.  In order to maintain it's state university "flagship" status; the U of I has put the cost of a university education out of the reach of the middle class citizens of Illinois.  The U of I realized years ago the money that could be obtained by bringing in foreign, and out of state students.  My point was that the U of I would do anything including a Farsi language institute funded by Iran in an attempt to bring in more money.  If you are fine with catering to China, you are entitled to your opinion. 

I do applaud the Chinese Accounting students for helping with the AARP tax assistance program.  Their language skills are a bit of an obstacle for the elderly; but they are donating their time in doing tax returns for the elderly.  They learn the U.S. tax structure at the same time.

In regard to Germany; I have no problem with a German culture and language institute partially funded by an ally.  Do you have a problem with the Germans? 

Alexander wrote on February 06, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Sid, you've long ago established that you barely understand the funding system of the universities (or even which universities are public/private) -- but you should know the reason why tuition is as high as it is: the increases are lockstep with decreases in tax support.

Also, there's no "catering" to China -- students and others *not* from China will benefit (unless you think the Chinese students need to come to UIUC to learn their own language). For this, China is kicking in $150,000 a year. It's like me paying half your rent for a place I don't live at and you complaining that you're catering to me for living there!

Re: Germany is an ally -- Please, stop with the China is our enemy crap (honesty, what have they done to you?) and focus on the real enemies from within (as you usually do). You know the real reason why you consider Germans your friends and the Chinese your enemy.


Sid Saltfork wrote on February 06, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Aw.. the insinuated charge of racism.  You don't say it.  You imply it.  I am supposed to deny it.  We both know that whatever denial is made by me will not convince some others.  You have sunk to a new level in defending your employer at all costs.  Shame on you.  I would rather see cooperative support for academics between allies rather than economic competitors.  South Korea, Japan, Brazil, and other economic allies have a common interest with the U.S.

There have been decreases in support from the state.  However, that has not stopped the high increase in administrative salaries.  It has not stopped the spending on academic frills.  You blame the decrease of state support for the decrease in middle class American students.  I would have no problem with all of that if the university were a private school.  Based on the path that the university is taking, it might be best if the state allowed the university to go it's own way as a private school.  It is becoming a money pit with little advantage to the state's citizens.

Carry on with your elitism, my lord; but be careful with the charge of racism.  Yes, of course; some of your best friends are members of diversity...   You are the only person with those qualifications in your mind.