NAS Sends Letter to SUNY Trustees

Jun 27, 2017 |  Peter Wood, Rachelle Peterson

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NAS Sends Letter to SUNY Trustees

Jun 27, 2017 | 

Peter Wood, Rachelle Peterson

On April 24, 2017, NAS released a report critiquing the rise of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes in American Higher Education. We studied the twelve Confucius Institutes in New York and New Jersey, including the six at institutions within the State University of New York system.

NAS President Peter Wood and Director of Research Projects Rachelle Peterson sent the following letter to all members of the SUNY Board of Trustees. We call on the Trustees to open an investigation of the Confucius Institutes in the SUNY system and to take steps to close these institutes.

 

June 26, 2017

State University of New York
Board of Trustees

Dear Trustee,

We write as the president and as the director of research projects of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a thirty year-old organization committed to intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth. We wish to draw to your attention to the Confucius Institutes within the State University of New York system.

We are sending this letter to each member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, as well as to Jennifer Mero, Assistant Secretary of the University. We are also posting a copy of this letter to the NAS website at www.nas.org.

For the last year and a half, the NAS has researched and noted with concern the rise of Confucius Institutes in the United States. These teaching and research centers are located at colleges and universities but sponsored by the Chinese government. In late April we released a major report, Outsourced to China: Confucius Institutes and Soft Power in American Higher Education, which features case studies of the twelve Confucius Institutes (CIs) in New York and New Jersey. (A copy is enclosed.)

Six institutions within the SUNY system host Confucius Institutes: Stony Brook University, University at Albany, the SUNY Global Center in New York City, Binghamton University, University at Buffalo, and the State College of Optometry. Confucius Institutes have been known to compromise intellectual freedom and institutional autonomy. When conducting research for our report, NAS found evidence at these CIs that significant university authority—especially over the curriculum and over the hiring of teachers—had been unduly shared with or outsourced to an agency of the Chinese government.

We urge you to conduct a full review of all SUNY Confucius Institutes and take steps to close these Institutes at the soonest opportunity.

We raise five concerns with Confucius institutes.

First, Confucius Institutes are directly tied to the Chinese government. An agency affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, known as the Hanban, oversees all Confucius Institutes worldwide, including the 103 located in the United States and the six at SUNY institutions. The Hanban’s governing council consists of the heads of twelve Chinese government agencies, including the State Press and Publications Administration (which handles state-run media and propaganda) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hanban’s executive director, Xu Lin, is also a Counselor in the State Council, the 35-member top-ranking administrative arm of the People’s Republic of China.

The Hanban provides operating funds to universities with Confucius Institutes. It also screens, trains, and pays Chinese nationals as teachers, and selects and pays for textbooks that are donated to each university. These books may be used in classes and catalogued in the university library. While each university selects a professor or administrator who serves as the American director of the Confucius Institute, and who then serves as the immediate supervisor of all teachers and classes, a significant amount of authority remains in the hands of the Hanban.

These measures permit the Chinese government an unparalleled degree of access to the college classroom. Many nations send teachers abroad to promote their language and culture. But most build separate, stand-alone institutions, such as France’s Alliance Française or Germany’s Goethe-Institut.  China is unique in insisting its cultural ambassadors are located at colleges and universities. Such direct influence on a college campus by a foreign government is alarming.

The Hanban itself considers the Confucius Institutes to be key parts of the government’s propaganda initiative directed against Western societies. In 2009, Li Changchun, then the head of propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party and a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, called the Confucius Institutes “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda setup.”[1] The Chinese government has learned how to take advantage of the eagerness of American universities to engage in “cultural exchange.” But for the most part, CIs do not engage in exchange. Their mission is primarily one of exporting political views.

Second, Confucius Institutes grant the Hanban a troubling amount of influence over the classroom.

Confucius Institutes operate as partnerships between an American host university and a Chinese university, under the oversight of the Hanban. While the host university has a say in how the Confucius Institute is run, so do the Chinese university and the Hanban. Often the Hanban’s role is extensive.

One area in which the Hanban claims undue authority over the university is in setting curricula. The Hanban selects and provides textbooks free of charge—a boon to universities’ budgets, but a reduction of its autonomy over its classes. The Hanban also approves funding for proposed courses and programs. These are decisions that no foreign government agency should weigh in on. Imagine university professors running their syllabi by the U.S. Department of Education. The university administration would never stand for this, yet the Chinese government enjoys just such leverage.

Here are some examples, taken from the contracts SUNY institutions have signed with the Hanban:

  • Binghamton University “must accept the assessment of the Headquarters on the teaching quality” of the teachers and classes within the Confucius Institute.[2] So must the State College of Optometry[3] and Stony Brook University.[4]
  • The University at Albany has pledged that it “will be guided by the assessment of the Headquarters on the quality of its teaching programs”—an improvement from simply accepting the Hanban’s assessment, but an arrangement that leaves the Hanban with significant authority.[5] Likewise the University at Buffalo agreed that “the Institute will be guided by the assessment of the quality of its programs by the Headquarters, the University and the host K-12 schools [where the university has arranged for CI teachers to instruct K-12 students].”[6]
  • At Stony Brook University, the Hanban is responsible “to provide teaching materials, coursewares, and other books according to the necessary [sic], to authorize the use of online courses. To provide 3,000 volumes of Chinese books, teaching materials, and audio-visual materials for the first time.”[7]

These concerns become especially urgent when Confucius Institutes offers classes for credit, as is the case at Binghamton University and the University at Albany.

Third, universities with Confucius Institutes may be noncompliant with state and federal anti-discrimination legislation.

The host university typically can select and appoint an American director and other ancillary staff, with the formal approval of the Confucius Institutes’ board of directors (usually comprising senior administrators from both the American and the Chinese partner universities).

But the host university has much less latitude when hiring the Chinese co-director and, importantly, the Chinese teachers who teach classes. The Hanban selects and screens candidates to propose to the university, usually in batches of two or three candidates per position. The university can request a new batch of candidates if it is dissatisfied with the first, but is typically constrained to hire from the Hanban’s list of eligible candidates.

Thus qualified American professors are rarely eligible for teaching positions paid by the Hanban within Confucius Institutes. This arrangement also empowers the Hanban to stack Confucius Institutes with teachers who conform to the Chinese government’s ideological preferences.

Here are some examples of hiring decisions that are largely determined by the Chinese partner university and the Hanban:

  • The State College of Optometry’s CI Chinese director is "assigned by Wenzhou Medical College" and formally appointed by the CI board.[8]
  • At Binghamton University, CI Chinese teachers are selected by the Hanban. Binghamton’s Agreement describes the Confucius Institute Headquarters as obliged to “send numbers of Chinese instructors based on the requirements of teaching, paying for their airfares, health insurance, housing, and salaries."[9] (The State College of Optometry[10] and Stony Brook University[11] have virtually identical language in their contracts with the Hanban.)
  • The University at Buffalo has made the most effort of any institution we examined to curtail the Hanban’s influence and provide university oversight of the Confucius Institute. Its contract specifies that UB requests teachers, who are then nominated by UB’s partner institution Capital Normal University, approved by the Hanban, interviewed and subject to the approval of the UB Confucius Institute and the academic departments in which the teachers are placed. (UB is also unique in partnering each teacher with a tenured professor to oversee and assess the teacher’s work.) We find that UB has the best policies of any SUNY Confucius Institute—and yet UB is like all others still constrained to hire from among the candidates proposed by the Hanban, a troubling restraint.[12]

We detail the hiring procedures at SUNY Confucius Institutes (along with several other universities) on pages 32-44 of our report, Outsourced to China, enclosed.

Any ideological litmus test is out of place in higher education. It is troubling that American universities may effectively be permitting the Chinese government to screen out potential Chinese teachers who may challenge or dissent from the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

Confucius Institutes may thereby be complicit in failing to follow American anti-discrimination law. The Chinese government is known for hiring based in part on loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and willingness to mind censorship sensitivities. We have no reason to believe the Hanban deviates from this policy.

There is evidence that the Hanban has practiced discrimination in hiring. In 2013, McMaster University in Canada shut down its Confucius Institute after a CI teacher came forward with evidence that the Hanban banned members of Falun Gong, a spiritual group heavily persecuted by the Chinese government. The teacher, Sonia Zhao, filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal alleging that the university was complicit in the Hanban’s discriminatory hiring. Andrea Farquhar, assistant vice-president of public and government relations, cited the university’s concerns for human rights and antidiscrimination law in the university’s decision to terminate the CI.[13]

Since 2013, the Hanban has removed from its website the language banning Falun Gong members, but it still requires candidate for CI positions to demonstrate their fidelity to Chinese law—which is itself discriminatory, not only against Falun Gong, but also, for example, against unregistered churches. In addition, we are troubled that no Hanban-funded Confucius Institute would hire a dissident Chinese professor, though such a professor is arguably the sort of scholar whom American universities should most welcome.

Fourth, universities with Confucius Institutes sign contracts that require some level of respect for Chinese law and other clauses that jeopardize the universities’ autonomy.

The Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes requires that CIs avoid action that “damages or tarnishes the reputation of the Confucius Institutes.”[14]

We obtained copies of the contracts SUNY institutions signed with the Hanban and with their partner Chinese universities by filing requests under state Freedom of Information law. All SUNY Confucius Institutes are based on contracts with language that echoes this clause of Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes nearly verbatim.

Such language is troubling because it can be used as a leverage to pressure the university to avoid publicly discussing matters that the Chinese government dislikes.

Many contracts also require universities to “not contravene Chinese law.” Every SUNY institution with a Confucius Institute signed a contract that required such a pledge to respect Chinese law, or a pledge to abide by the Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes, which itself requires adherence to Chinese law. Here are a few examples:

  • Stony Brook University signed an agreement that states, “The Institute activities must be in accordance with the Constitution and By-laws, and also respect cultural custom, shall not contravene concerning the laws and regulations, both in the United States and China.”[15]
  • The University at Albany contract holds that “The Institute activities must be in accordance with the Constitution and By-laws of the Confucius Institutes, respect cultural customs of the United States and China, and shall not contravene any relevant laws and regulations of the United States and China.”[16]

Fifth, professors at universities with Confucius Institutes face pressure to self-censor.

Multiple faculty members reported to us concerns that Confucius Institutes restricted academic freedom—not only for the CI teachers, who are hired by and held accountable to the Hanban, but also for university faculty members. Some felt pressure from other university staff and faculty associated with the Confucius Institute to avoid voicing concerns about the CI. Many also reported pressure from university administrators to be careful to keep the Hanban happy, so as to preserve the funding stream.

One professor at the University at Albany reported that on the day Hanban officials came to tour the university, faculty members’ doors had been stripped of banners referencing Taiwan. Apparently this was an effort to censor any evidence that Albany professors might not wholly agree with the Chinese government’s practice of claiming of Taiwan as a province.

Another professor at SUNY institution requested anonymity when discussing his university’s Confucius Institute, because he feared voicing concerns about the CI would jeopardize his standing with the university administration. “This is my career and livelihood on the line,” he said—a sentiment other professors reported as well.

The National Association of Scholars recommends that all universities close their Confucius Institutes.

We urge you to conduct a full review of all Confucius Institutes at SUNY universities and take immediate steps to terminate agreements with the Hanban and close all Confucius Institutes.

In the meantime, we call on you to take specific steps to curb as much as possible the undue influence of the Hanban and protect the academic freedom of professors and the integrity of the classes for students.

  1. Provide transparency. Make available for easy download all memoranda of understanding, contracts, and other agreements between the university and the Hanban, or between the university and the Chinese partner institution. Annually disclose how much funding the university receives from the Hanban or the Chinese partner institution for the Confucius Institute, and disclose how much the host university contributes (separating in-kind contributions from real expenses). Disclose all trips, honors, and awards bestowed on university officials by agencies of the Chinese government.
  2. Ensure that all CI budgets are separate from university budgets, and that all Confucius Institute events are advertised as such. As much as possible, Confucius Institutes should be distinguished from their host institutions. Confucius Institute events should not be listed on university calendars, promoted on the university website, or used as assignments or count toward extra credit for students. The Hanban considers Confucius Institutes standalone nonprofit organizations, yet houses them in universities and benefits from the status and prestige of the university. Reduce this free-riding.
  3. Cease outsourcing for-credit courses to the Hanban. Ensure that Chinese language classes are taught by professors or instructors selected and paid by the university.
  4. Renegotiate contracts to remove constraints against “tarnishing the reputation” of the Hanban. Scholarship should be civil, but it should not be constrained by the fear of punishment for offending Chinese sensitivities.
  5. Formally ask the Hanban if its hiring process complies with American non-discrimination policies. Does the Hanban prioritize members of the Communist Party? Are members of Falun Gong still excluded? Is the selection based purely on merit? Ask the Hanban for a formal written answer.
  6. Change the wording of all contracts to clarify that legal disputes should be settled only in American courts. Add language specifying that in all disputes of Chinese and American law, American law takes priority. The Hanban should assume legal liability if it violates American law when operating a Confucius Institute in America.
  7. Require that all Confucius Institutes offer at least one public lecture or class each year on topics that are important to Chinese history but are currently neglected, such as the Tiananmen Square protests or the Dalai Lama’s views on Tibet. Ensure that these programs are fair, balanced, and free of external pressures.
  8. Include in orientation for every Confucius Institute teacher and Chinese director the university’s policies on academic freedom. Ensure that all teachers enjoy the same rights.
  9. Make the Confucius Institute director’s position a voluntary service position, with no additional pay, thereby reducing financial pressures for CI directors to cater to the Hanban’s preferences.

I urge you to consider these recommendations, and to undertake a thorough review of all SUNY Confucius Institutes.

Since releasing our report, Outsourced to China, we have received some friction from several Confucius Institutes. The Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University stands out for its refusal to cooperate with our research, and its subsequent decision to flyspeck the report and express outrage over minor errors, all of which we have gladly corrected. It is clear that the administration of Binghamton University is sensitive about its Confucius Institute and intent on suppressing criticism.

The National Association of Scholars is not, however, the first or only organization to become skeptical of the role of Confucius Institutes in American universities. In 2014, the University of Chicago closed its CI. Other universities have followed suit. The Government Accountability Office has opened its own investigation of Confucius Institutes, and the American Association of University Professors has issued a statement condemning the institutes.

NAS is actively engaged on a wide range of issues in higher education unrelated to Confucius Institutes and China. We became involved with the critique of CIs in response to complaints from our national membership over the abridgements of academic responsibilities and academic freedom connected to CIs. Having studied the problem, we agree that it is serious.

We trust that, with due diligence, you will concur. CIs operate with a veneer of legitimacy. But look beneath that veneer, and you will find troubling arrangements.

Yours,

 

Peter Wood
President
National Association of Scholars

 

 

Rachelle Peterson
Director of Research Projects
National Association of Scholars

 

[1] See “A Message from Confucius,” The Economist, October 22, 2009. http://www.economist.com/node/14678507.

[2] Binghamton University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and the State University of New York at Binghamton of the United States on the Establishment of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University, Article 5.

[3] State College of Optometry, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and State College of Optometry, State University of New York United States on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at State College of Optometry, State University of New York, Article 5.

[4] Stony Brook University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and Stony Brook University on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at Stony Brook University, Article 5.

[5] University at Albany, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and the Research Foundation for the State University of New York, and University at Albany, State University of New York on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at the University at Albany, Article 5.

[6] University at Buffalo, Renewal Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, of the United States of the Continued Operation of a Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo, Article 5.

[7] Stony Brook University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and Stony Brook University on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at Stony Brook University, Article 6.

[8] State College of Optometry, Implementation Agreement between SUNY College of Optometry and Wenzhou Medical College for the Development of the Confucius Institute at SUNY College of Optometry, Article 2.

[9] Binghamton University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and the State University of New York at Binghamton of the United States on the Establishment of the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at Binghamton University, Article 6.

[10] State College of Optometry, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and State College of Optometry, State University of New York United States on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at State College of Optometry, State University of New York, Article 6.

[11] Stony Brook University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and Stony Brook University on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at Stony Brook University, Article 6. Stony Brook’s Agreement for the Implementation of the Hanban Confucius Institute at SUNY Stony Brook also specifies that its partner Chinese university, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, will be involved with the Hanban in selecting Zhongnan professors eligible to fill these roles. Stony Brook University, Agreement for the Implementation of the Hanban Confucius Institute at SUNY Stony Brook, Article 3.

[12] University at Buffalo, Renewal Cooperation Agreement for the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York Between the University at Buffalo and Capital Normal University, Article 3.

[13] For more information, see Samantha Craggs, “McMaster Cuts Chinese Institute, Worried by Discrimination,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, February 11, 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/news/mcmaster-cuts-chinese-institute-worried-by-discrimination-1.1321862.

[14] Constitution and By-Laws of the Confucius Institutes, Hanban. http://english.hanban.org/node_7880.htm.

[15] Stony Brook University, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and Stony Brook University on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at Stony Brook University, Article 5.

[16] University at Albany, Agreement Between Confucius Institute Headquarters of China and the Research Foundation for the State University of New York, and University at Albany, State University of New York on the Establishment of Confucius Institute at the University at Albany, Article 5.

Image: SUNY Geneseo Integrated Science Center by Benjamin D. Esham // CC BY-SA 3.0

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