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. [University of South Florida]
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. [University of South Florida]
Published January 2
Updated January 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.

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