EDITORIAL: WKU’s Confucius Institute poses a threat to Chinese Flagship Program


Herald Editorial Board

Issue: Many universities in the United States have cut ties with Confucius Institutes over the in recent years, and WKU’s long-term commitment to its Confucius Institute is both peculiar and could be a possible threat to its Chinese Flagship Program.

Our Stance: A decades-long partnership between WKU and its Confucius Institute could prove to be a counterproductive and short-sighted decision if it costs the university its Chinese Flagship Program, but it can also produce benefits regarding diversity and tolerance if the organizations are allowed to coexist.

Under the guidance of former President Gary Ransdell in 2017, WKU agreed to a 50-year lease with the Confucius Institute, allowing the institute to operate out of a new $1.5 million building paid for by the Chinese Education Ministry.

There are currently over 100 Confucius Institutes in the United States and almost 500 worldwide, with the Chinese government hoping to have 1,000 settled globally by 2020, according to a Hanban News article.

Controversy has mounted around Confucius Institutes in recent years, though. Just within
the past year, over 10 universities have canceled relationships with their Confucius Institutes, including Texas A&M, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Michigan and Penn State.

The institutions are also designed for secondary education students, not college students, making it odd that so many are located on university campuses.

The reasons for universities ending their involvement with Confucius Institutes primarily revolve around academic integrity and national funding.

Confucius Institute curriculums must follow a strict set of guidelines from the Chinese government and openly support the views of the Chinese Communist Party, according to Inside Higher Ed. This has often led to complaints about the organization’s transparency concerning historical events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, causing many to view it as propaganda.

Lawmakers found the Chinese government has spent more than $158 million on Confucius Institutes in the United States since 2006, according to Inside Higher Ed.

In August 2018, President Donald Trump signed a $717 billion defense bill, part of which bars Department of Defense funding from contributing to Chinese education at universities with a Confucius Institute. While the most outspoken criticism relating to Confucius Institutes has come from Republicans, leaders on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern.

While the Confucius Institute is paid for by the Chinese government, WKU’s Chinese Flagship Program is funded by the Department of Defense and is in danger of being eliminated because of this, but the university is currently seeking a waiver to continue to promote both programs. There is no timetable for when a decision might be reached.

In an interview with the Herald editorial board in January, WKU President Tim Caboni said he believes the university’s Confucius Institute is a great opportunity for young people who lack the opportunity to learn Chinese and wish to develop an appreciation for the country’s culture.

“In some ways, having our partners in the Chinese government in the Confucius Institute paying to create a cadre of students who would be interested in coming to do the Chinese Flagship Program here at WKU is a pretty good thing, and I’m hopeful that the Department of Defense will grant our waiver,” Caboni said.

However, if WKU’s commitment to its Confucius Institute causes its Chinese Flagship Program to be cut, then it would be the definition of counterproductive, as WKU trusting in a foreign institution to hopefully boost its original Chinese-centered program only for its initial organization to be eliminated would be ironic in the worst way possible.

WKU’s Chinese Flagship Program has done an excellent job of educating students on Chinese culture and language by assisting them with personal native-speaking tutors and offering them multiple opportunities to study abroad.

Most students who begin the program have no experience speaking Chinese, yet graduate proficient in the language, as well, so it should be questioned how essential it is for students to learn Chinese at the Confucius Institute.

While the institute can educate students and help them get a head start in learning Chinese, its risks outweigh its rewards.

It seems all WKU can do is hope a waiver from the Department of Defense prevents it from making a half-century-long mistake.