New Chinese building leads to questions

John Corum

For Chinese teachers aspiring to teach in the United States, growing accustomed to the unique qualities of the American education system can be a substantial challenge. A new building is approved for construction by the Board of Regents for the Confucius Institute program in hopes of easing this transition.

The new facility is being built adjacent to the new Honors College and International Center building. The construction is partially funded by the $1.5 million awarded to the university by the People’s Republic of China as part of a competitive grant program. The university is providing an additional $800,000, relying on private funds.

According to Betty Yu, associate director of educational outreach for the Confucius Institute, the new facility will provide specialized training for Chinese teachers, who might otherwise struggle with the unique rigors of teaching in America.

“When we visited the Chinese schools, we found there are usually fewer hours in the classroom and more of a planning period, whereas in the U.S. we don’t have as long of a planning period,” Yu said.

As Yu explained, another major challenge for Chinese teachers is adjusting to the physically taxing nature of the American school day.

“In China, there is usually a two-hour break between 12 and 2,” she said. “So there is a physical adjustment for the teachers because where they went to school they were offered two hours a day for lunch and rest, but we don’t have that. Physically, there is an adjustment … it’s more intense.”

Barbara Burch, former provost and current faculty regent, was the single regent to vote against the project (one regent abstained). She expressed a concern for the conditions that come alongside the new facility, including a lack of control over what the building is used for.

“I was curious … what if we want to repurpose this building?,” Burch said. “Let’s say times change, situations occur, and we want to repurpose the building. My understanding is that it is a 50-year contract. I don’t know what that means.” 

According to Burch, it was unnecessary for WKU to accept money that carried stipulations because the program could have easily expanded without the construction of a new facility. 

“It seemed to me that with the construction of the new International and Honors building next door, which is pretty spacious and has quite a bit of room, I was having a hard time seeing why there was a need for a building exclusively for the Confucius Institute … We have quite a bit of space available on campus, and I just couldn’t see a reason why we needed it,” Burch said.

According to Terrill Martin, managing director for the Confucius Institute, the new building will be purposed specifically for acclimatizing these teachers over the period of several weeks.

“When the teachers come over, we conduct a three-week professional development. Basically what this building is going to be is a training center for those teachers,” Martin said. 

As Martin explains, the new training facility is likely to wield influence past WKU’s campus.

“Our hope is that we will become a regional facilitator of teacher training, for teachers in Tennessee, Kentucky and maybe even Indiana and Southern Illinois. That’s our hope,” Martin said. 

Despite the new facility’s construction, however, the Confucius Institute will continue to occupy its original location within the Helm Library.

“Helm Library was created as a stepping stone for a program,” Martin said. “Basically, it forms a cultural introduction to the Chinese culture. That will remain intact. Students will still be able to walk through the library and get a sense of the Chinese culture, but our particular building that we are building will be for teacher training.”

The building’s dedication to training only Chinese teachers, however, may restrict the degree to which other students on campus may enter.

Nicki Taylor, Student Government Association president and student regent, recently proposed the idea of an SGA resolution geared for opening the new building up to student usage. Because the building is being partially funded by the WKU Foundation Fund, it should be available to all students,” she said.

“I would like to see students have the opportunity to use it whenever it’s not in use [by the Confucius Institute],” Taylor said.

According to Yu, there may be some opportunities for students to access the new facility, as several planned events would be open to the community.

“We would like to bring visiting scholars in, you know, fun classes for the community and so forth. Right now, we have classes like calligraphy offered to the community, but we have always wanted to offer a cooking class as well,” Yu said.

Still, Taylor’s vision for the building expands beyond occasional community classes.

“My thinking is sort of opening up and maybe having the rooms reservable for students when they aren’t being used by the teacher training institute, for things such as clubs or tutoring sessions, or whatever else students might want,” Taylor said.

However, expanding the usage of the building may be difficult, as some remain cautious about the obligations WKU may face after accepting the grant donation. 

Even with administrative assurances, some would still like more clarity on the terms of the contract. As Burch elaborated, the grant was proposed to the board with very little explanation.

“One of my concerns was that the agreement to build it had already been signed and determined a month or so earlier when the president was in China, and I really didn’t feel that very much was known about the terms of the contract, or what kind of commitments we were making that accompanied that,” Burch said.

“Do I feel those questions have been resolved? Not really,” she said. 

President Gary Ransdell said the building plans had been in the works for several years; it had to be. The research foundation board gave $500,000 to the WKU Foundation to accrue interest for several years, enough to generate the $800,000 WKU had to match the Hanban’s $1.5 million.

The other $700,000 came from the value of the land and construction services which WKU will provide, Ransdell said. 

According to Burch, any ambiguity in the Confucius Institute’s operations is troubling because of the programs semi-autonomous nature. Though residing on campus, it has very little faculty oversight.

“We don’t do much of the driving for the program. We pretty much have the Confucius staff and while a few faculty are involved, I don’t think it is faculty owned. My other concern was that I wanted to know how the faculty would be involved in this … but one thing the president did say was that once the building was approved he would be willing to let the faculty have input into this process. I am hopeful that will occur,” Burch said.

Ransdell said he doesn’t expect the building and program to generate similar controversy as at University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania State. Both schools terminated their Confucius Institutes within the last year due to faculty restrictions on curriculum. 

“I have no reservations, but the key is to remember that it’s a program,” Ransdell said. “They’re not directly involved in the curriculum.”

Even with faculty input, however, Burch remains concerned with the source from which the University’s share of financial support for the building was drawn. 

“My understanding is that the money came from a foundation account, which [Dr. Ransdell] believes the source of the money in that account is private money, but … I would have preferred an earmarked donation from private sources to match that money,” Burch said.

Burch expressed that the program was overall beneficial to the campus, though it should continue to be closely monitored by the faculty.

“Many good things have come with the Confucius Institute,” she said. “Students can have Chinese language study, but I do think the degree to which it is present on campus and the degree to which it is not is at least partially driven by faculty … that’s a concern.”

As these discussions continue, the facility will slowly grow taller along Normal Drive. According to Yu, the building will be fully functional by fall of 2017, though the program may use parts of it intermittently before then.