Saturday, April 11, 2015

The New Confucius Institute At Northern State. Will Students Learn About China--Or About How To Get Along With The Chinese?

     Governor Daugaard was effusive and positively ingratiating in Aberdeen yesterday.  He
Confucius, You Da Man
Will The Chinese Scholars At NSU Operate On That Principle?
(photo from
was there to welcome the new Confucius Institute to Northern State University. The Confucius Institute at NSU is one of about 100 of these ventures sponsored by the People's Republic of China (PRC), the purposes of which are to teach Chinese language and culture to students around the world.  The CI at Northern will fulfill that mission, an important one to Governor Daugaard, who said at the ceremony, "you can't discuss business, you can't discuss culture, if you can't discuss. Language and understanding of language is foundational to that."  

     There's no contradicting that sentiment, but it does make me wonder why the PRC feels like it has to set up entire "institutes" at American universities in order to facilitate the teaching of language and culture.  Seems to me we have plenty of homegrown scholars that can get that job done without inviting an entire apparatus from the country whose language and culture are to be taught.  And anyway, "language" I get.  But what are fields of study that constitute "culture?" Seems a bit broad to me and my first instinct is to question the motivation.  Before you write me off as reflexively paranoid, consider what's been going on with these Confucius Institutes at other schools around the U.S.  
     But first, our rock-ribbed conservative Republican leadership has allowed this entree into South Dakota's public university system without much discussion or debate.  That's actually pretty amazing, considering that their intellectually and ideologically conservative doyennes at The Heritage Foundation scorched the Confucius Institute last month in a report that concludes: 1) that CI "attempts to stifle free and open debate on China;" 2) "misrepresents" its link to PRC's Education Ministry; 3) "non-disclosure clauses make the entire enterprise opaque;" 4) (Get this one!) "that CIs have been set up as bases for industrial espionage and to pursue Chinese students and other Chinese nationals who stray from the party line here in the United States;" and 5) by selective hiring, "CIs break U.S. labor and employment laws." This is a pretty darn serious list of accusations, well-documented by the folks at The Heritage Foundation.  
     As to the ground game as it has played out on campuses themselves, the Confucius Institute has had plenty of troubles.  The Heritage Foundation piece details issues that came up at
Daugaard Approves
Some Chinese Studies Offered At NSU.  PRC Will Decide Which Ones
(photo from Aberdeen American News)
Stanford and NC State. Meantime, that other virtually mandatory daily read by conservatives, The Wall Street Journal, reports that Penn State and the University of Chicago last Fall dropped CI, citing restrictions placed on fields of study by the Chinese administrators. The South Dakota Board of Regents' Memorandum of Understanding on this explicitly states that CI must adhere to all BOR policies on academic freedom, but something tells me similar MOUs were produced at Stanford, NC State, Penn State and U. of Chicago.  I have no doubt that feisty profs at NSU will understand why the American Association of University Professors last June recommended that "universities cease their involvement with Confucius Institutes" because CI's "third party control of academic matters is inconsistent with academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities."

     My take is that nobody in this process really cares if South Dakota's university students learn a thing about China, its economy, its politics, its form of government.  Or for that matter its disdain for academic freedom.  What we seem to be caring about here is the facilitation of business dealings, and business dealings alone. A worthy mission, whose good intentions are wrecked by forgoing any attempt at learning about what China really is, which, of course, ruins the whole idea of what a university is all about in the first place.    

1 comment:

  1. You are probably right in assuming that business dealings, not learning and scholarly examination, are NSU's major motives behind the Confucius Institute on the campus. The English Dept. had a Chinese National who became a U.S. citizen as its linguistic professor who helped organize the English As a Second Language program and taught courses in Mandarin. We also had a professor in the art dept. who learned Mandarin in the Peace Corps and contributed to the program. The business dept. appropriated the programs and set a program separated from any of the usual academic departments which are involved in the shaping and administration of language and culture programs. This seems a replacement for the EB-5 program after it was removed from the NSU campus. When it comes to matters of academic freedom, integrity, and shared governance NSU has already put in place the measures to limit academic freedom and eliminate shared governance that the governor of Wisconsin is proposing for the U. of Wisconsin system. AAUP has not delved into that yet. Academe has been under siege for some time to convert it into economic development schemes. The sad aspect is that NSU developed and ran strong programs for dealing with Chinese and other Asian students. I was thesis advisor for Chinese nationals who studied English and American literature and returned to China. When the academic dean and I tried to correspond with one of the men who returned to China to teach, our letters were returned with "No such person found" stamped on them.