USF to review its Confucius Institute amid Rubio concerns about Chinese overreach

A teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg delivers a Chinese lesson in 2008. Three years later, the University of South Florida Confucius Institute announced that Thurgood Marshall would host the first "Confucius Classroom" in Florida, with thousands of dollars in new resources and opportunities for international exchange. This month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on USF and other schools to sever their ties with the institute, saying it was a tool of the Chinese government. Thurgood Marshall already ceased that relationship last year. [Times files | 2008]
A teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg delivers a Chinese lesson in 2008. Three years later, the University of South Florida Confucius Institute announced that Thurgood Marshall would host the first "Confucius Classroom" in Florida, with thousands of dollars in new resources and opportunities for international exchange. This month, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called on USF and other schools to sever their ties with the institute, saying it was a tool of the Chinese government. Thurgood Marshall already ceased that relationship last year. [Times files | 2008]
Published February 19 2018

The University of South Florida has no reason to believe its Confucius Institute has been compromised by the Chinese government, USF System President Judy Genshaft wrote in a letter last week.

Still, she told Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the university has immediately begun a review of its partnership with the Chinese ministry of education to ensure academic integrity.

Genshaft outlined the checks and balances on the Confucius Institute hosted at USF and said she hoped they would reassure Rubio, who has called for a handful of Florida schools to sever their ties with these institutes amid questions of their use as a tool of the Chinese state.

After receiving Rubio's letter, the University of West Florida said it was already planning to drop its agreement, citing a lack of student interest.

Other universities across the country, such as the University of Chicago and Penn State, have cut ties with these institutes as faculty and others sounded alarms about academic freedom and concessions to the Chinese government. Rubio has warned of increasingly aggressive Chinese attempts to influence U.S. academia, eliding critical analysis of Chinese history and policies. A top Chinese education official has been quoted as saying the institutes are an attractive cover for boosting China's soft power.

The Chinese government partners with host schools in the U.S. to set up Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture. They've been criticized for teaching Chinese-approved versions of those subjects.

USF, which in 2008 became the first Florida university to host a Confucius Institute, says USF professors always design their own curricula and retain final approval.

"In respect to this long-held practice at USF, when negotiating the agreement with the Hanban a very intentional decision was made that the Confucius Institute would not have any academic authority," Genshaft wrote.

That means the Confucius Institute at USF operates under the oversight of USF's own tenured faculty and administrators. It doesn't dabble in political or religious activities, Genshaft said. All Chinese-related content comes from USF faculty who are U.S. residents, not visitors affiliated with a Chinese university, she said.

Mandarin language classes are taught by USF professors according to USF syllabi. Two teachers from Qingdao University in China support the class under USF supervision.

In 10 years, USF hasn't seen any Chinese effort to promote certain ideas, Genshaft said.

"With that said, we too have been concerned when reading recent reports about the levels of academic authority that other universities around the United States are apparently vesting in their local Confucius Institutes," Genshaft wrote. "However, please be assured that none of those activities take place at USF."

Though Genshaft said no evidence suggests that USF's center has been compromised, she said she and USF's board of trustees jump-started a review and will keep Rubio posted about any subsequent decisions.

Read her letter in full:

Dear Senator Rubio:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your recent inquiry about our agreement with the Hanban in hosting a Confucius Institute at the University of South Florida (USF) and to address the concerns you outlined in your letter dated February 5, 2018.

At USF, we place a high value on the integrity of each of our academic programs and our own professors always design and approve the curriculum for our students. In respect to this long-held practice at USF, when negotiating the agreement with the Hanban a very intentional decision was made that the Confucius Institute would not have any academic authority. Thus, the Confucius Institute at USF promotes Chinese language and culture with the full and continuing oversight of USF tenured faculty (who are all US citizens and permanent residents) and academic administrators, and it does not engage in any political or religious activities.

It is important to note that Mandarin language is taught in USF's Department of World Languages adhering to USF-approved syllabi, and delivered by USF professors supported by two teachers from Qingdao University who are directly supervised by USF tenured faculty (who are all US citizens and permanent residents). All content related to China, and delivered to our students, is determined by faculty within USF's colleges and departments and not by any guest whose appointment or affiliation is with a Chinese university.

Over the 10 years that USF has hosted a Confucius Institute, we have not experienced any effort by the Hanban to promote certain concepts or principles, and the nature of the partnership presented by our institution to the Hanban at each renewal has not changed. The Confucius Institute at USF is in place to help our students and community develop a clearer understanding of Chinese language and culture, but academic authority for all content taught to students belongs exclusively to USF faculty.

With that said, we too have been concerned when reading recent reports about the levels of academic authority that other universities around the United States are apparently vesting in their local Confucius Institutes. However, please be assured that none of those activities take place at USF. We have had safeguards in place throughout the existence of the Confucius Institute at USF to ensure that all educational content disseminated to students, through the Institute, relates to learning to speak the Mandarin language only and is carefully supervised and scrutinized by USF faculty (who are all US citizens and permanent residents).

Like all centers and institutes at our university, the Confucius Institute is subject to regular and thorough review in accordance with USF System Policy 10-063. USF has a defined and review process, and we will fulfill our rightful and timely responsibility to evaluate the Confucius Institute and make an appropriate and informed recommendation. We have no evidence that our Confucius Institute has been compromised, but if it became apparent through the review process that the Chinese Government has in fact undermined our academic integrity we would be compelled to act immediately. In response to your request, the Board of Trustees and I have immediately implemented a review of the Confucius Institute at USF.

I hope that you feel reassured, from the information provided above, that USF has taken preventive steps to ensure that our students have not been exposed to any teaching of Chinese history, culture or current events promulgated by the Chinese government through the Confucius Institute at USF.

Thank you for the steadfast leadership you provide for our state. If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me. In the meantime, we will be sure to keep you and your staff apprised of any decisions we make going forward with respect to our agreement to operate the Confucius Institute at USF.

Sincerely,

Judy Genshaft
USF System President

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