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.