A petition has been signed by 108 University of Chicago faculty members asking the Council of the Faculty Senate to discontinue the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago (CIUC), a Chinese government–affiliated organization on campus that provides Chinese language and culture education and funds related research.
“[CIUC] grants much too much influence to an outside entity over academic matters. I think the integrity of the academy depends on preserving its autonomy and its ability to reach disinterested decisions about what’s worth teaching, what’s worth researching, [and] what counts as knowledge,” Divinity School professor Bruce Lincoln, an organizer of the petition said.
CIUC was inaugurated in June 2010 after the University signed an agreement in September 2009 with Hanban, the office that heads the Confucius Institute. At that time, the Council of the Faculty Senate was not involved in the decision to bring the Confucius Institute to the University, according to the petition. The Council of the Faculty Senate is a body of professors that presides over academic matters. CIUC’s contract with the University is currently up for renewal, and the protesting faculty members believe that the decision to terminate the contract should rest with the Council.
The petition takes issue with the CIUC’s connection to the Chinese government and states that the CIUC falls under Chinese law, which “subjects the University’s academic program to the political constraints on free speech and belief that are specific to the People’s Republic of China,” according to the petition.
Currently, Confucius Institute instructors teach in the East Asian languages and civilizations program. According to Dali Yang, director of the Confucius Institute and a political science professor, Chinese instructors apply to work with Hanban, which then chooses who it wants to nominate to work at the University. The nominees are then interviewed and selected by University faculty and teach the same curriculum as other instructors.
“The institute is an entity that enables faculty to do more research and allows students to acquire the skills to better understand China,” Yang said. “I find it disappointing that those teachers are not being recognized for their contributions.”
Yang said that University faculty have the right to reject nominated Confucius Institute instructors and prevent them from being hired, but the petition states that that right has not been exercised.
A Hanban teacher working at McMaster University in Canada, who was dismissed after it was discovered that she follows Falun Gong, was cited as an example of how the Confucius Institute can limit freedom of speech. 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.
The petition also brings up concerns that the Hanban teachers may prevent discussion on sensitive political topics in China, and states, “Hanban teachers are trained to ignore or divert questions on issues that are politically taboo in China, or indeed criminalized, such as the status of Taiwan, Tiananmen, the pro-Democracy movement, etc.”
According to history professor Bruce Cumings, who signed the petition, in recent months China has fired prominent professors at Beijing University and elsewhere for their political views.
“I think to justify the academic freedom that we have and the tenured jobs that we have, scholars have to be above both the reality and the suspicion of undue influence,” Cumings explained. “American universities should not be taking money or institute funds from governments that are jailing professors and that do not provide academic freedom in their own country,” he said.
Professor John Mark Hansen, Chair of the Board of Directors of CIUC, said in a statement that CIUC’s role at the University is primarily to fund the research of University faculty and that academic freedoms remains for CIUC instructors.
“Academic freedom has always been a paramount value at the University of Chicago, and faculty members here are deeply committed to free inquiry,” he said. “That’s as true of faculty members who participate in the work of the Confucius Institute at the University of Chicago as it is of colleagues who are critical of it.”
Hansen said that a committee of three faculty members has been formed to review the CIUC’s actions. The committee will consult with the CIUC board and other deans involved with the renewal of CIUC’s contract.
Anthropology professor and organizer of the petition Marshall Sahlins has written extensively on the Confucius Institute.
“We’re not in this because of anti-communist sentiments,” he said “We’re not people who are motivated by crazy anti-Chinese positions—on the contrary. Our interest is strictly academic integrity, academic freedom, and the wellbeing of the University of Chicago.”