Alabama A&M University and Troy University have responded to questions from Congressman Mo Brooks about the Confucius Institutes that operate on their campuses.
Confucius Institutes at American colleges have come under fire from federal and state officials who say they could be used for propaganda and influence favorable to China’s government, such as by suppressing discussion of its authoritarian policies. Brooks called on Alabama A&M and Troy to shut down their Confucius Institutes.
“The Communist Chinese Party cannot be allowed to gain influence over America’s education system or undermine American national security,” Brooks wrote to university officials last month.
Confucius was a philosopher and teacher who lived more than 2,500 years ago in China. Confucius Institutes operate under Hanban, an organization based in Beijing with the stated purpose of promoting the teaching of the Chinese language and understanding of the culture.
In a four-page letter to Brooks, (attached to the end of this article) Alabama A&M President Andrew Hugine Jr., said the Confucius Institute at the university focuses on enhancing cultural awareness.
“In its operations and curricula approval and oversight, the institute’s course programming has followed the normal course of any program, course or degree approval at the University and is under the auspices of our faculty,” Hugine wrote. “We not only espouse academic freedom, but we practice it in all that we do. The faculty has curricula control over the offerings of the institute.”
Troy University Chancellor Jack Hawkins wrote to Brooks that there was no indication of undue influence by the Confucius Institute, which started at Troy in 2007.
“To summarize, our experience with the Confucius Institute to date has been positive, focusing on the teaching of Chinese language and culture, student/faculty exchanges with partner universities, and sending delegations to tour China,” Hawkins wrote. “The CI at Troy University has neither input to nor influence over matters of academic administration at Troy University, including research activities.
“In addition, as we told representatives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in two interviews in 2019, we have seen no evidence of undue political influence from the Chinese government nor has there been any evidence of intellectual theft.”
An Alabama lawmaker has said he would sponsor a bill to ban Confucius Institutes from publicly funded college campuses in Alabama. Rep. Tommy Hanes, R-Scottsboro, said the institutes are a propagandist arm of China’s Communist government. Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, said he would support the bill because he was concerned about the Confucius Institutes promoting a softened view of Communism.
In August, the Trump administration designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center in Washington as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party. The designation means the center has to report to the U.S. government information about funding, personnel, curriculum and other activities, the Associated Press reported. More than 60 universities in the United States have Confucius Institutes, the AP reported.
Brooks, a Republican from Huntsville, asked the two Alabama universities whether the Confucius Institutes teach on several specific topics, including China’s relationship with Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
Hugine wrote that those topics and others Brooks mentioned are not part of a curriculum.
“The instructors at the Confucius Institute of AAMU teach Chinese language related subject matters, and do not, nor would it be appropriate for them to, teach these topics,” Hugine wrote. “However, like other students and faculty at AAMU, the teachers and staff of Confucius Institute at AAMU have the freedom to discuss such matters. The Confucius Institute of AAMU has organized, hosted, or participated in many cultural activities, which are always inclusive and involve diverse (religion, ideologies, ethnicity, nationality) communities of students, faculty, staff and members of the public.”
Lance Tatum, senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at Troy, said the Confucius Institute operates under the academic division of the university. The institute hosts visiting scholars, sponsors events, supports student trips to China, offers Chinese language classes for the community, and maintains a small museum, Tatum said. The institute does not offer courses for credit, Tatum said.
Tatum said Troy is responsive to the concerns of federal and state officials and examined its Confucius Institute two years ago to determine what changes, if any, were needed.
“We actually had a comprehensive review conducted of our Confucius Institute along with recommendations on how we could address growing concerns that were developing within the federal government as well as within state government,” Tatum said. “And we’ve been using that review as kind of the road map for steps and decisions that have been made over the last two years.”
As part of the work of the Confucius Institute, Troy has supported Chinese language and culture classes in six K-12 public schools, a program called Confucius Classrooms. But that is coming to an end.
Tatum informed the schools in a Sept. 23 letter that after December 31 it would no longer provide the visiting Chinese language instructors to teach the courses because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and related issues concerning visas.
Confucius Classrooms, like Confucius Institutes, have drawn new scrutiny from federal officials. The programs are taught in about 500 elementary and secondary classrooms nationwide, according to the AP.
On Oct. 9, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent state education officials across the country a letter warning them about the potential of undue influence.
“At any grade level, the presence in U.S. classrooms of instructors supported by an authoritarian regime poses risks to our democratic values,” DeVos and Pompeo wrote.
In response, Alabama Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey sent a memo to county and city school superintendents across the state to phase out Confucius Classrooms by the end of this semester.
“I fully realize that none of you, nor your Boards of Education, would support the repressive activities detailed in the attached letter,” Mackey wrote. “Nor would you allow such to be taught in your classrooms. Nevertheless, based on the information provided by the U.S. Departments of State and Education, I would encourage you to end any such Confucius Classroom experiences as soon as practicable, with a goal to end them at the conclusion of this semester.”
Mackey said the state Department of Education does not track Confucius Classrooms, which are not required to register with the department. He said he believes Alabama schools have had few Confucius Classrooms and those numbers have declined. He said he was aware of only one still operating.
“What we’ve had traditionally are very few classrooms around the state where they taught either Chinese language or some of them taught Chinese culture and art,” Mackey said. “We do not allow them to teach Chinese politics. If any of that has been going on, it should not have been.”
Tatum said Troy takes seriously the concerns of state and federal officials about Confucius Institutes. But he said there is value in the way the program operates at Troy.
“Colleges and universities are a place of educational discovery,” Tatum said. “So we talk about all sorts of things that are not necessarily an advocative position or some type of mechanism by which we’re trying to infiltrate the minds of those who attend here.”
Tatum said programs that bring international students to Troy promote international awareness of the freedoms that embody America.
“We have students that come over here from China that understand and are exposed to democracy and to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which is very foreign to them and what they’ve been raised in,” Tatum said. “They take those ideas and those influences, and they take them back to China with them.”
Troy brands itself as a melting pot that welcomes foreign students, a point Hawkins made in his response to Brooks. The university says students on its Troy campus represent more than 70 nations.
“As Alabama’s International University with a rich tradition of expanding international engagement, we at Troy have determined that fostering communication and cooperation with China is a worthy goal, given its standing as an economic superpower that imports good from Alabama,” Hawkins wrote. “The dialogue and relationships that ensue through our participation in the CI program help achieve understanding, which will in turn lead to appreciation, between ourt nations.”
Alabama A&M President Hugine wrote in his letter to Brooks that the university is mindful of the importance of academic freedom because of its history. Former slave William Hooper Councill spearheaded the founding Alabama A&M as Huntsville Normal School in 1875.
“As an institution we are keenly aware of social injustice, and thus, the university has not and will not ever engage or partner with any entity that jeopardies our integrity, threatens national security, or place our institution and its constituency at risk” Hugine wrote.