UNF signs partnership with opaque Chinese institute

Christian Ayers

President John Delaney and Jianxiang Zhang, Shaanxi Normal University’s Vice Director of International Programs, signed the agreement that will send students between the schools to study abroad. Photo by Joshua Brangenberg
President John Delaney and Jianxiang Zhang, Shaanxi Normal University’s Vice Director of International Programs, signed the agreement that will send students between the schools to study abroad.
Photo by Joshua Brangenberg

UNF signed an agreement with Hanban, a Chinese public institution, on Oct. 29 to offer courses at UNF on Chinese culture and language through a Confucius Institute. Aware of controversy surrounding the program, university officials remain optimistic about the partnership and know they can cancel the contract if needed.

Founded in 2004, the Confucius Institute is designed to teach students across the world Chinese language and culture, promoting insight into the country’s long history, according to its parent institute Hanban’s website.

The Chinese professors appointed to these classes are given strict guidelines from Hanban and the Chinese government in terms of what they can teach and talk about with students, causing concern for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

The program answers to Chinese government officials through Hanban, which funds the program and establishes the curriculum, staff, and class resources for a host university, according to the AAUP report.

The AAUP released a statement in June this year urging professors and American universities to be cautious in implementing a Confucius Institution and negotiating a deal with Hanban.

According to the AAUP report, the Confucius Institute compromises academic freedom by actively eliminating topics from the curriculum, like the Boxer Rebellion and China’s relationship with Tibet.

Illinois Wesleyan University Professor and Chair of Computer Science Hans-Joerg Tiede, an AAUP member, said Hanban needs to be more public in their approach to establishing Confucius Institutes and give control of the curriculum to the program’s respective universities. Tiede said professors and Hanban need to address questions of academic freedom, curricular issues, and details of how the university negotiates with Hanban.

“So little information about the details of the agreement is made available to the public, to faculty,” Tiede said.

Delaney gave Zhang a blown glass bowl from St. Augustine to commemorate this agreement. Photo by Joshua Brangenberg
Delaney gave Zhang a blown glass bowl from St. Augustine to commemorate this agreement.
Photo by Joshua Brangenberg

Tiede said the AAUP’s expressed grievances with the Confucius Institute do not mean they want to cease the program’s operations.

“We’re not making efforts to stop this,” Tiede said. “The purpose of our efforts is to insist that faculty at institutions where Confucius Institutes are established ask that the negotiations are publicized and that they contain safeguards for the kinds of values that the AAUP stands for.”

UNF Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Earle Traynham signed and negotiated the partnership with Hanban. Traynham said his staff understands the concerns of the program, but the positive educational benefits outweigh those concerns.

“The controversy really stems with the possibility that the Confucius Institute may in some way infringe on some people’s views of academic freedom,” Traynham said. “We were well aware of the controversy that had come up at the University of Chicago. Our attitude was that this was an opportunity for UNF to benefit significantly through language and culture educational opportunities for our students.”

Tiede said the primary gripe the AAUP has with the Confucius Institute and Hanban is not only about what the students are taught, but what rights and values the appointed professors are prevented from upholding.

“We have concerns that instructors who teach in the Confucius Institute may be told not to engage in discussions of criticisms of China,” Tiede said. “That would be curtailing the academic freedom of the instructors who teach there.”

UNF’s exchange program with China’s Shaanxi Normal University started in 2004. Both schools expressed interest in negotiating with Hanban for a Confucius Institute in 2008. Traynham said the application process was lengthy and UNF nearly withdrew theirs.

“There was a lot of interest in getting a Confucius Institute here,” Traynham said. “There were some faculty members that were already familiar with the Confucius Institutes and what they could bring.”

Tiede said a major question the AAUP wants Hanban to answer revolves around money and how they support each university.

“It has to be assumed that a lot of schools who have opened these institutes have done so because of the significant financial support that they receive from Hanban,” Tiede said. “Opening a Confucius Institute allows an institution to offer courses on Chinese language and culture, for which there is a lot of interest, while receiving support to offer them.”

Hanban financially supports the Confucius Institute faculty and educational resources, Traynham said. He appointed Dr. Ronghua Ouyang, UNF education professor, as director of the new program, whose salary is paid for by UNF.

Zhang gave Delaney a gift of a Chinese Ding, a replica of the ceremonial cauldron from the Zhou dynasty. Photo by Joshua Brangenberg
Zhang gave Delaney a gift of a Chinese Ding, a replica of the ceremonial cauldron from the Zhou dynasty.
Photo by Joshua Brangenberg

Traynham said Hanban allocates $150,000 to the university to pay for events run by the Confucius Institute as well as office and classroom supplies like desks and chairs.

UNF’s goal in adopting the program was to round out the overall education offered by the Coggin College of Business, Traynham said.

“We wanted our students in business to be better prepared to do business with people in China,” Traynham said. “And Chinese language was just a part of that.”

Traynham said the Confucius Institute doesn’t have any curricular power to affect how other courses are run.

“There is nothing in our arrangement with the Confucius Institute that in any way inhibits the ability of the University of North Florida through any of its courses to address issues, problems, concerns in any country in the world,” Traynham said. “The Confucius Institute will have nothing to do with the content of any courses on this campus except for the language courses and culture courses that they teach through the Confucius Institute.”

Traynham said the five-year deal UNF and Hanban agreed to can be cancelled at any time if university officials believe the Confucius Institute is not a positive option for the school to support.

UNF senior Ryan Hellriegel, marketing and international business major, said he supports the university’s decision to accept the Confucius Institute.

“You have to be cautious with everything when you’re doing a partnership,” Hellriegel said. “My suggestion would be to watch it very carefully, but not to discount something if it’s been reviewed for ten years. There’s an obvious reason that it was brought to campus. Maybe UNF sees a value in this program.”

Email Christian Ayers at [email protected]