The New Problem of Higher Education: The Foreign-Based Institute

James A. Stever

For decades university faculty have watched various institutes in higher education with some apprehension—and for good reason. By design, institutes circumvent faculty governance traditionally exercised through discipline-oriented departments. Also by design, institutes are more responsive to outside interests; and, institute personnel often lack academic credentials and instincts. Until recently, faculty concerns about institutes were ignored by university administrations who found institutes a more convenient and pliable institutional template than departments.

When a faculty-based initiative recently expelled the Confucius Institute from the University of Chicago, the trend stalled. Moreover, McMaster University in Canada expelled its Chinese-funded Confucius Institute a year earlier. And, in June, 2014, the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a report warning that Confucius Institutes are an extension of the Chinese State. Pennsylvania State University followed the University of Chicago—announcing the expulsion of its Confucius Institute on October 1, 2014. The faculty and administrations at these universities jointly believed that their Confucius Institutes did not conform to campus academic norms to the point that their cooperation with these institutes should terminate.

The Obvious Problems Posed by Confucius Institutes

NAS can and should join with others in exploring the relationship between the remaining Confucius Institutes and their campus hosts. The Confucius Institute is a bargain between the Hanban, a Chinese government agency, and university administrators. Such institutes allow the Chinese Government regular access to western culture. In return, and at no monetary cost, university administrators gain favorable publicity and an instrument to recruit students. In exploring this particular relationship, NAS will be joined by an array of other higher education groups such as the AAUP who have legitimate concerns.

Predictably, the university presidents who continue to host the remaining 88 Confucius Institutes will be reluctant to part with what has been an economic windfall. The Chinese government pays all the cost associated with the Confucius Institute. In return, those who accepted the Confucius Institute believed they would reap an array of rewards. For universities seeking to appear progressive, the Confucius Institute is the embodiment of globalism and multiculturalism. With minimal or no institutional investment, the Confucius Institute functions as a vehicle by which American students and scholars can enjoy some exposure to Chinese culture. However, those universities who have expelled their Confucius Institutes claim these institutes limit critical inquiry and academic freedom.

However interesting the particular furor over Confucius Institutes, there is a broader, more pressing issue. The Confucius Institute is merely one example of a foreign-based institute that American Universities have attempted to integrate into campus culture with varying degrees of success. It is the foreign-based institute that deserves scrutiny, not just the particular case of the Confucius Institute.

The Foreign-Based Institute: Productive Cooperation or Faustian Bargain

The Confucius Institute exemplifies a relatively new solution to the ongoing economic problems of higher education—the foreign-based institute. In their unrelenting search for revenue, universities have invited various foreign governments to become a regular presence on campus. China is not the only country who has discovered this portal. Various countries have utilized this portal by supporting institutes, scholarships, museums, and paid trips abroad.

By definition, the foreign-based institute is substantially funded by a foreign government. Foreign-based institutes function to link United States students and researchers with the host country through various programs and scholarships. These institutions exist even though there are substantial differences between the ideology of the country funding the institute and the country of the campus host. Presumably, the foreign-based institute is founded to address this tension.

It is an open question whether foreign-based institutes displace and exacerbate rather than complement and assimilate into the open scholarly culture of the university. Beyond the case of China, hundreds of universities accept foreign contributions to support institutions with a wide array of missions. However the case of the Confucius Institutes illustrate the downside risk of giving such institutes a place on campus. It is a researchable question as to what tipping points move a foreign-based institute from an asset to a liability. Surely, the degree of foreign control over the institute would constitute a significant variable. It is firmly within the National Association of Scholars’s purview to explore the broad scope and scale of these bargains between foreign countries and American universities. The importance of this topic justifies the utilization of NAS resources to raise the necessary funds to support research. The foreign-based institute has become a pervasive institutional template, and the case of the Confucius Institutes raises questions about both its viability and desirability.

Addressing the foreign-based institute question will also raise questions about university administrations that attempt to host and manage relationships between themselves and any foreign-based institute. Are the risks posed by the institute worth the economic benefits? Is the decision to accept a foreign-based institute shrewd politics or a Faustian bargain?


Image: Chinese Stone Lions (number two), Highfields Park by Arran Bee // CC BY 2.0

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