The University of Chicago Sells Itself Cheap

Confucius Institutes have no place in free universities
May 9, 2014 12:19 am Last Updated: May 9, 2014 9:56 am

On a sunny day in April, 1972 I walked into the courtyard of a dormitory at the University of Chicago and felt I had found my fate. With austere, gray limestone walls and tall, leaded-glass, casement windows the place seemed to me to resemble nothing so much as a monastery. I felt that here one could do something out of the ordinary.

The alternatives I knew of in life seemed to my adolescent mind hollow. I wanted something real. If you had pressed me as to what that meant, I would have with some embarrassment said I was looking for wisdom and beauty.

My case is hardly unusual. In my generation, students came to the College to study the great books. Today, they come looking for “seriousness” and “intellectual rigor.”

In any case, students have been attracted by the idea of the University of Chicago, by the promise that it was a different kind of place that offered unique possibilities based on the principles it upholds.

The university markets itself in this way. In my email today comes a message from the university’s president promising that a new multi-billion dollar fundraising campaign is “built upon the University’s fundamental values and distinctive culture.”

Unfortunately, the university administration is threatening those values and that culture as it seeks to renew, in what is possibly an irregular way, the University of Chicago Confucius Institute.


The People’s Republic of China first got into the business of setting up Confucius Institutes ten years ago. The Institutes are presented by the PRC as educational—they teach Chinese language and culture. In fact, the educational mission of the institutes is a façade; their real purpose is propaganda.

At the typical Confucius Institute, the PRC determines the curriculum, and provides instructors and teaching materials. In the Institute’s version of China, certain topics, such the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the occupation of Tibet, or the persecution of Falun Gong, are kept out of sight, while other topics are given a slant that suits the officials back in Beijing.

Five years ago the University of Chicago opened its own Confucius Institute. Measures were taken to try to insulate the University of Chicago Confucius Institute from being seen as a tool of the PRC.

The University chose to ignore certain provisions in its agreement with the Institutes’ headquarters—known as Hanban. While the contract specifies that Hanban provides the curriculum and materials for instruction, the university demurred. The PRC has been eager to sign up a top research university like the University of Chicago and has gone along with this breach of the standard agreement.

The university accepts language instructors chosen by Hanban from staff in mainland China, and research funds are made available to university faculty.

The contract for the University of Chicago Confucius Institute is now up for renewal, and Professors Bruce Lincoln and Marshall Sahlins have sounded an alarm.

They have released a petition signed by 108 University faculty, including 37 endowed chairs and 7 departmental chairs, that asks that the renewal be voted on by the faculty.

The administration does not dispute the petition’s claim that “it is generally acknowledged that decisions concerning the establishment of entities with teaching responsibilities (‘education’) fall within the purview of the Council [the faculty-elected Council of the University Senate] for approval.”

Instead, faculty who support the renewal of the Confucius Institute claim that the majority of its budget goes to faculty research. I believe the opponents of the Institute who say that this assertion is a bean counter’s dodge.

A single quarter’s sabbatical for one full professor will likely equal or surpass the cost of a few imported language instructors for a year. But that doesn’t change the fact that a core function of the Institute is education.

The preservation of faculty governance is a key issue, but the problems raised by the University’s embrace of the Confucius Institute go far beyond whether the faculty or the administration has the authority to decide on whether the Institute goes or stays.

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