Advertisement
  1. Breaking News

USF shutters controversial Confucius Institute on New Year's Eve

University officials said declining enrollment led to the closure, not fears that the Chinese government could use the institute to gather intelligence.
The University of South Florida Confucius Institute co-sponsored the Mid-Autumn Festival in October on the Tampa campus. Events included the Oct. 27 Double Ninth Festival, where six Chinese and American senior citizens were invited to share their life experiences with USF students acting as interpreters.
The University of South Florida Confucius Institute co-sponsored the Mid-Autumn Festival in October on the Tampa campus. Events included the Oct. 27 Double Ninth Festival, where six Chinese and American senior citizens were invited to share their life experiences with USF students acting as interpreters.
Published Jan. 2

TAMPA — The University of South Florida has closed its Confucius Institute, a language and culture teaching center sponsored by the Chinese government that some had labeled a potential a threat to the United States' national security.

After 10 years, the institute quietly closed on Monday, New Year's Eve.

However, shuttering the institute had more to do with declining enrollment in Chinese studies than national security concerns, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said on Wednesday.

USF said only 65 students total were enrolled in its four Chinese courses this fall, compared to 191 in spring 2014.

The center, which opened as Florida's first in 2008, was simply no longer benefiting USF enough to be worth sustaining, Wilcox said, as it strives toward becoming a "top-tier research university."

When president Judy Genshaft asked him and others to prioritize resources, the Confucius Institute ended up on the chopping block.

However, university officials did concede that the national security concerns of U.S. government officials played a role in the decision — specifically when it comes to federal funding. In August, President Donald Trump signed the $717 billion 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. Inside is a provision that limits federal funding to colleges and universities with Chinese ties, and the provost said USF was unwilling to pass on those funds.

"We are always going to do what's in the best interest of the University of South Florida, our students and the communities we serve," Wilcox said. He added that USF leaders announced the decision to shut it down to faculty and Chinese partners in September, following an annual review of the center.

USF World vice president Roger Brindley, whose division manages the university's global partnerships, led the inquiry. It was started soon after U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio wrote letters to USF and four other Florida schools with Confucius Institutes in February, urging leaders to end their relationships with the Chinese government.

RELATED: Rubio says USF should end ties with Chinese-run Confucius Institute

In response, the University of West Florida in Pensacola said it already had plans to close its institute, also citing low enrollment. The institute at the University of North Florida will close next month, after the school chose not to renew its contract with the Chinese government following federal investigations into the Confucius Institutes in August, according to the student-run news website the UNF Spinnaker.

There are more than 100 institutes like the one USF once hosted throughout the U.S., and many extend programs into K-12 classrooms. But other universities like Penn State University and the University of Chicago have eliminated the centers, too, in response to similar concerns about security and academic freedom.

In his letter, Rubio charged Chinese leaders with using the institutes to "infiltrate" American classrooms. He cited a speech by a former Chinese official who in 2011 called the institutes "an important contribution toward improving our soft power."

Brindley was not available for comment Wednesday. Rubio's office did not return a call for comment from the Tampa Bay Times.

Though the Confucius Institutes haven't proven to be hotbeds for espionage, they have the potential to become such, said James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University. His research team has spent more than three years studying Chinese interests in U.S. academia.

The institutes are "cogs in a larger wheel" of effort by China to increase its global influence through the acquisition of science and technology, Giordano said. Having such a physical presence on campuses provides the Chinese government with the potential to gather data and intelligence "that can be leveraged for other agendas, whether economic and market or ... national security."

The professor said the fact that USF has a lot of dealings with the military, especially U.S. Special Operations Command at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base, raises that concern to another level. In theory, the Confucius Institutes could serve as a resource to place Chinese agents in positions where they where they could obtain information from a variety of government, military, academic and business institutions.

"But there is no direct history of that," Giordano said, adding that calls to close the institutes is more of a preventative measure than a response to any specific threat.

The USF review echoed that point of view, saying there was "no evidence whatsoever" that curriculum or intellectual property was ever at risk during the university's decade-long partnership, Wilcox said.

"USF prides itself on the scope and depth of our global engagement," he added. "And those extend far beyond this."

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. [Times]
    The suspect and the victim did not know each other prior to the shooting.
  2. The victim in Friday's shooting at a Tampa police officer's home has been identified as 15-year-old Bradley Hulett of Lithia. Hulett is pictured here on the Facebook page of Operation Lotus, a Hillsborough County non-profit that supports families coping with tragedy and is raising money for Hulett's family. [Facebook]
    Bradley Hulett, 15, was described as sweet, intelligent and charismatic.
  3. A transient mother is facing three counts of felony child neglect after an officer found three children alone on a dilapidated bus early Saturday morning. [Gulfport Police Department]
    She has been charged with three counts of felony child neglect.
  4. Off-duty detention Deputy Leighton Ricketts, 32, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol early Saturday morning. A four-year veteran of the Sheriff’s office, Ricketts was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending the results of an internal affairs investigation. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office] [ANASTASIA DAWSON  |  HCSO]
    Detention Deputy Leighton Ricketts, a four-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending the results of an internal affairs investigation.
  5. This is a booking photo of Eric Banks, who police say robbed a Dunkin Donuts in Gulfport in September. [Sarasota County Jail]
    The robber used a ball cap, clothing and sunglasses to try to conceal his identity. But he couldn’t cover everything.
  6. Blake Faine is charged with DUI manslaughter. His booking photo on that charge was not available Friday afternoon. This is a booking photo from a 2018 arrest. [Pinellas County Jail]
    A 71-year-old woman, Dorothy Wertz, was killed in the crash on Tuesday night.
  7. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.,left, speaks with House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., right, during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. [ANDREW HARNIK  |  AP]
    The charges now go to the full House for an expected vote next week.
  8. Traffic backing up on southbound Interstate 275 on the Howard Frankland Bridge Thursday evening after the Florida Highway Patrol said a fatal crash took place hours earlier. [Florida Department of Transportation]
    The collision of two pickups left traffic snarled for hours.
  9. WESH 2 News shared aerial video of a crew cleaning up the grapefruit spill on the Florida Turnpike Wednesday. [Screenshot]
    Loose fruit created a traffic squeeze that was not appealing.
  10. A rendering of what Clearwater's downtown waterfront will look like once Imagine Clearwater's plans come to fruition. The mock-up is oriented so the top is the western waterfront and the bottom is the the eastern waterfront. In the southwest, a lake is planned underneath the Memorial Causeway. A shaded bluff walk will run along the waterfront's eastern edge, and in the middle of the complex, Clearwater plans a 4,000-seat covered concert venue. To the north, what is now Coachman Park will be re-imagined as a new garden. [Stantec via the City of Clearwater]
    Here’s one thing: People are worried about parking.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement