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May 13, 2014

Signers of faculty petition raise concerns on Confucius Institute, faculty freedoms

A recent petition signed by 108 faculty members asking for the termination of the University’s ties to the Confucius Institute [CI] at the University of Chicago reflects a broader frustration by signers of the petition with the growing administrative reach and changed goals of the University.

The CI is a Chinese government–affiliated organization that provides Chinese language and culture education and funds related research. The petitioners’ main issue with the CI is that it gives an outside organization too much agency in academic matters.

The petitioners claim that Hanban, the Chinese governmental organization that oversees the Confucius Institutes in various universities and schools world-wide, screens the teachers it chooses to send to universities for links to dissent groups and controversial religious organizations. Though the University can reject the recommended professors, the petition stated that this power had not been exercised.

Confucius Institutes have presented freedom of speech issues for faculty at other universities. Hanban dismissed a teacher working at McMaster University in Canada after it was discovered that she followed Falun Gong, a moral and meditative practice that is illegal in China. When the case was brought to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, McMaster University had to defend a decision that was not in line with Canadian law, and thereafter did not renew its contract with the Confucius Institute.

Retired anthropology professor Marshall Sahlins, a main proponent of the Confucius Institute petition, said that in addition to the ethical concerns with the Confucius Institute, the petition is also a response to eroding faculty involvement in University decisions. The decision to establish the CI in 2009 was not brought before the Council of the University Senate. The Council is composed of 51 faculty members who serve three-year terms.

“[Faculty] is being denied the rights given to it by the statutes of the University, and that means there is a progressive erosion of faculty governance and control of the education process…. With the Confucius Institute, I think there is going to be an erosion of the last power of the faculty, and nothing will be left of faculty governance.”

Sahlins said the creation and naming of the Becker Friedman Institute was another example of a situation in which the faculty was not consulted or engaged.

Divinity School professor Bruce Lincoln, another main proponent of the petition, said that the naming of the Becker Friedman Institute was a move to attract wealthy donors who “enjoyed the ideas of Milton Friedman.”

Lincoln said the naming of the Becker Friedman Institute was what made some faculty aware of the erosion of their power. He also expressed frustration with what he called the “growing corporatization of the University.”

“The administration does a lot of things right, but their sense of the good leads them to pursue financial advantage, which can come into conflict with considerations of intellectual integrity,” Lincoln said. “There is a managerial class in the administration who are willing to develop programs, centers, etc.,  that appeal to people outside the University who write big checks.”

Robert Topel, a Booth School professor who led a 2012 faculty committee that examined questions of faculty jurisdiction, disagreed with Lincoln’s view of faculty agency. He said the committee decided that the Faculty Council has legislative authority over degree programs, but that ultimate authority over the establishment of institutes and research centers lies with the President and the Board of Trustees.

“The question is whether the Senate or Council has legislative authority over something that a particular entity on campus, such as the Humanities Division or the Department of Far Eastern languages [sic], might do. That can come to the Council for a vote, but it need not come to the Council for a vote. It depends on whether the action of the Humanities Division implicates…the general interest of the University, and the persons who decide that are the President and the Trustees.”

University spokesperson Jeremy Manier added that faculty should be able to “decide on academic aspects of implementation of educational programs without the oversight of the faculty from outside their areas.”

Mel Rothenberg, a retired mathematics professor, emphasized the shift in the University’s larger goals and visions, and said that the establishment of the CI reflects this shift. He said that during the Robert Hutchins Administration (1929—51) and shortly afterward, the University was “a little more sensitive about who it took money from,” pointing out that it rejected money from the Shah of Iran, who wanted to start an institute for Middle Eastern studies.

Rothenberg traced the growing emphasis on the University’s fundraising efforts back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He attributed the shift to a need for funding from private sources due to a decrease in government funds under the Reagan Administration.

“[The University administrators] were encouraged by politicians to go to private sources for donations, and to not look to the government…. If you’re raising money from large corporations, then when they look at the structure of your University, they’re very concerned about that, so you have to conform to their model of how to use the money, which you didn’t have to do before,” he said.

Lincoln said that during the Hanna Gray Administration (1978–93), the faculty and administration had a more robust relationship, and that the erosion of faculty governance and increased focus on raising funds began in the ‘90s during the Hugo Sonnenschein Administration (1993–2000), and has continued to the present.

“In cases like the Confucius Institute, I worry about the University’s willingness to sell control over pieces of its academic operation to extra-academic forces in exchange for their financial support,” he said.

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