Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government-funded language and culture centers hosted by many American colleges, have fallen on hard times.
Academic groups and lawmakers across the political spectrum have sounded the alarm about their potential to spread propaganda and stifle the academic freedom of faculty, leading several colleges to shutter their institutes in the past year.
Colleges are also seeking to prevent their internal conversations about Confucius Institutes from reaching the public, by demanding steep fees for public records. The University of Massachusetts-Boston demanded $1,500 from The College Fix, for example.
But the colleges probably got their worst news when congressional and agency reports recently pulled back the veil on how much authority they had ceded to the Chinese government, and how little they cared about legal compliance.
Rachelle Peterson of the National Association of Scholars, a longtime critic of the institutes, writes in National Review that most colleges that receive Chinese funding to host the institutes have been breaking the law.
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that nearly 70 percent of them “never reported those donations to the Department of Education” as required by law.
This isn’t walking-around money – China has spent $158 million on just U.S.-based Confucius Institutes, and they run by rules that are foreign in any sense to American universities:
Many Confucius Institutes offer for-credit classes taught by Chinese nationals vetted by the Hanban, an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Education, which requires them to pledge not to “violate Chinese laws” or “engage in activities detrimental to national interests.” It’s not hard to see how that language chills speech on topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or the persecution of the Uyghurs, leaving students at Confucius Institutes with a one-sided education.
Tag-teaming the congressional report was a Government Accountability Office report that exposed most universities as letting Hanban “vet and propose a pool of candidates from which they hired Confucius Institute teachers,” Peterson notes.
It’s not enough that the Department of Education recently promised the subcommittee that it would update and reissue its aging guidance on foreign-gift disclosures and remind colleges to get in line, Peterson says:
The Higher Education Act stipulates an unreasonably high threshold for disclosure: $250,000 from a single source in a calendar year, even though the average salary for a full-time instructor at a four-year college is only about $50,000.
Lawmakers must also close loopholes, making clear that gifts to university foundations are subject to the same disclosures. And we need more specific information on where donations come from and what they are used for — such as the name of the government office making the gift, the terms or conditions under which the gift was made, and the program or purpose for which the recipient college earmarked the gift.