Among the concessions that Hanban made to Chicago was striking the secrecy clause from the CI agreement. Apparently none was needed, because the Confucius Institute is still a secret in important respects to the chair of the faculty board that monitors its operation. Headed by the humanities dean, Martha Roth, the board consists of two other Chicago professors and two members appointed by Renmin University. Roth indicated in an interview that she was not aware of the provisions of the constitution and bylaws of the Confucius Institutes: “I don’t remember having looked at it.” Neither did she recall the provisions of the agreement that the university signed with Hanban. She thought, wrongly, that Hanban was “under the direction and auspices of the Ministry of Education”—an impression that Hanban officially conveys in English-language documents by its “affiliation” with that ministry, instead of the council of government officials to which it in fact reports. When asked about the required submission of research proposals to Beijing for approval and funding, Roth found the procedure unobjectionable, likening it to the practice of submitting proposals to the US Department of Education. Nor was she concerned about the problems that had arisen with Confucius Institutes in other universities, being satisfied that Chicago was following its own principles of academic freedom. When asked to comment on the provisions governing Confucius Institutes in the Hanban constitution and the agreement, Roth responded that such questions are “better addressed to the legal office” of the university.
Roth was certain, however, that Beijing does not supply Chinese-language teachers to Chicago and pay their salaries and airfare, as specified in these official documents. She said Hanban was thought to do so a couple of years ago, but “that never happened.” “This was unfortunate,” she said, “because we need more Chinese-language instruction.” Perhaps this patent mistake was made because the teachers supplied by Hanban offer courses in the regular curriculum of the undergraduate college, rather than in a teaching program of the Confucius Institute itself. Hanban has been providing two or more visiting language teachers to the University of Chicago since 2006, even before the formal agreement; since the agreement was signed, the supply has continued under its terms. Chicago’s own proposal for a Confucius Institute, as noted previously, had a significant teaching component. However, misconceptions linger about how these teachers are selected.
Referring to what would be another concession to Chicago, both Dali Yang and Ted Foss say the university substantially controls the hiring of language teachers from China. In Yang’s words, “The university is fully engaged in the hiring process for Chinese teachers, not just a right of refusal.” Says Foss, “We have control over who’s sent.” However, the director of the Chinese-language program at the university, who engages the Hanban teachers, has a different view of the process. She says that, based on her knowledge, all Chinese-language teachers can apply for the job, but that they must hold advanced degrees in Chinese language and have taught foreign students at their own university. “Then they need to take some tests, such as English and psychological tests. If they are chosen by Hanban, they need to attend a training session. They say they learned things such as traditional folk arts.” When asked what role Chicago plays in choosing the teachers, the director, then in Beijing, responded: “We don’t choose. They recommend, and we accept.” Six weeks later, when contacted again in Chicago, she said the university could refuse Hanban’s recommendation on reviewing the candidate’s CV, and Hanban would then recommend another instructor, but that this doesn’t happen. In any case, because Hanban is operating under Chinese laws—such as those defining Falun Gong as a criminal organization—Chicago is at risk, however unwittingly, of practicing the kind of discriminatory hiring that brought McMaster University before a human rights tribunal. The university may be all the more vulnerable because it pays the Hanban-selected teachers a supplement to their Chinese wages.
This oversight seems still more serious because the obliviousness regarding the institute extends even higher in the administration than those immediately charged with overseeing it. On June 4, 2010, three days after the Confucius Institute of the University of Chicago was ceremoniously opened, the president and provost had a meeting with representatives of a self-constituted faculty organization called CORES, during which the CI came under discussion. CORES had organized the petition signed by 174 faculty members protesting what they called the “corporatization” of the university, of which the Confucius Institute and the Milton Friedman Institute were prime examples. The minutes of this meeting were circulated to all participants, with no corrections offered to any of the contents. The minutes indicate that two prominent East Asia scholars, Bruce Cumings and Norma Field, objected to the political character of the Confucius Institute, the role it would play in determining what is taught about China at the university, and how “they and other faculty members who work on East Asia had effectively been excluded from discussions and the decision-making process.” They were not alone: the minutes also record that University President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum “acknowledged their lack of information on this matter and expressed bewilderment and regret at how this happened.”
What, then, would prevent Zimmer from cutting Chicago’s ties to its Confucius Institute, or Columbia and the LSE from doing the same? Prominent CI hosts should take the lead in reversing course, stressing that the issues involved are larger than their own particular interests: by hosting a Confucius Institute, they have become engaged in the political and propaganda efforts of a foreign government in a way that contradicts the values of free inquiry and human welfare to which they are otherwise committed. More than parochial institutions, universities too, each and all of them, are global projects: the universal ideal of free inquiry for the good of all humanity on which they are founded should make them more than a match for Confucius Institutes. It is long past time for Chicago to live up to its motto, Crescat scientia; vita excolatur. Let knowledge increase, that human life shall flourish.