The University of Minnesota’s Confucius Institute — part of a controversial web of Chinese-backed institutes hosted at universities across the U.S. — will close at the end of the semester.
University administrators say the closure was due to shifting priorities and new federal policy. Confucius Institutes, which are hosted by colleges across the nation, provide Chinese cultural and language teaching. Although they claim that free speech is not limited in the University’s program, Confucius Institutes throughout the country have attracted interest from lawmakers, national organizations and the FBI for allegedly undermining academic freedom.
The University’s Confucius Institute aims to strengthen K-12 Chinese language learning throughout greater Minnesota. It's built a network of schools throughout Minnesota with support of the Chinese government, said Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the University’s Confucius Institute.
“The Chinese language teaching community in greater Minnesota … has definitely grown and matured over the last decade. Their needs have evolved,” said Meredith McQuaid, associate vice president and dean of international programs for the University. “We feel like we’ve launched them well.”
Changes in federal policy contributed to the University’s decision. The National Defense Authorization Act, enacted last August, prohibits the U.S. Department of Defense from funding Chinese language programs at institution's Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes without a waiver.
The University’s DOD-funded Chinese Language Flagship program would have lost funding with the new policy had the University not decided to close its Confucius Institute. While the NDAA was a factor in the University’s decision to close its Institute, McQuaid said closure discussions were already underway.
In its report on Confucius Institutes published in 2017, the National Association of Scholars highlighted concerns over transparency, intellectual freedom and censorship of topics including Taiwan and Tibet. The NAS recommended that all universities close their Confucius Institutes.
A University spokesperson said the University's contract with the Confucius Institute does not regulate what employees discuss.
In a Feb. 2018 U.S. Senate hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray said: “We do share concerns about Confucius Institutes. We’ve been watching that development for a while. … It is something we’re watching warily and in certain instances have developed appropriate investigative steps.”
The University of Minnesota is one of five Big Ten universities to close its Confucius Institute since 2014.
The decision to close came after months of discussion between University and Institute leaders on what its future looks like, McQuaid said.
Over the past 10 years, the number of K-12 Minnesota public school students studying Mandarin has increased from about 5,700 to over 12,000, Brzezinski said. “The programs have grown so much and they’ve gained so much experience … that they don’t really need us anymore,” she added.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, sent a letter to the Confucius Institutes at the University and St. Cloud State University last year expressing his concerns with the programs, which he said function as a public relations front for the Chinese government.
While McQuaid said the University was never asked to close its Confucius Institute, she said the school always takes lawmakers' opinions into consideration. In addition to Abeler, Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, have also made inquiries into the work of the University’s Confucius Institute. The school’s Confucius Institute has received “numerous inquiries” from both federal and state lawmakers over the last 18 months, McQuaid said.
From 2014-2018, the University’s Confucius Institute received over $1.2 million from Hanban, China's Confucius Institute headquarters, which makes up about 40 percent of the Institute’s funding. The rest came from the University and federal grants.
Both Brzezinski and McQuaid praised the work of the Confucius Institute.
“It really has been a great success … and of course, whenever anything ends that has been successful, there’s some sadness,” McQuaid said. “But that’s the nature of the University, to keep changing and keep evolving.”
No University employees are expected to be laid off due to the Confucius Institute’s closure, according to McQuaid.