Buried in next week's agenda of the California State University’s board of trustees meeting is a $4 million item that could fuel an ongoing national controversy about the role Chinese big money is playing at American universities.
"San Diego State University wishes to proceed with the renovation of the first floor of the Professional Studies and Fine Arts building to create a site for the Confucius Institute," says the item.
"This project, located on the northwest quadrant of the historic campus core, will provide a dedicated space to facilitate a broad range of cross-cultural enrichment activities."
Continues the proposal, set to be heard at the November 17 meeting of the trustees, "The space to be renovated is a high-bay remnant of the building’s original use as the main campus library, and is vacant, thus no academic functions will be displaced by the renovation.”
But more than just another fancy renovation project, SDSU's Confucius expansion is taking place against a backdrop of debate on U.S. campuses regarding the untoward influence of a well-heeled foreign government on traditional Western academic values and independence.
Last year, the University of Chicago, one of the first American universities to host a Confucius Institute, pulled the plug on the operation amid controversy over its aims and methods, as portrayed in remarks made by Madame Xu Lin, director of Hanban, the Chinese government agency that runs the Confucius program.
"The university and Hanban have engaged in several months of good faith efforts and steady progress toward a new agreement," the school said in a September 25, 2014, statement. "However, recently published comments about UChicago in an article about the director-general of Hanban are incompatible with a continued equal partnership. The University is therefore suspending negotiations for the renewal of the agreement at this time."
The story in the Chinese-language daily Jiefang said, "Many people have experienced the inflexibility and toughness of Xu Lin," according to a translation by Inside Higher Ed.
Xu Lin’s showdown with Chicago occurred after more than 100 faculty members signed a petition demanding that the university close the institute because it was under the thumb of the Chinese government.
The Chinese newspaper reported that she had responded to the petition and calls for reform "with only one line: 'If your school decides to withdraw, I will agree to it.' Her attitude made the other side anxious. The school quickly responded that it will continue to properly manage the Confucius Institute."
The institutes are coveted by many U.S. universities because of the large sums they bring from the Chinese government during a time of growing budget austerity, but critics say the tradeoff between cash and freedom of speech isn’t worth it.
"Allowing any third-party control of academic matters is inconsistent with principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and the institutional autonomy of colleges and universities," says a June 2014 position paper by the American Association of University Professors.
The controversy has grown particularly fierce over Hanban's stance on the sovereignty of Tibet and Taiwan, the long-disputed island that became the Republic of China after Chiang Kai-shek fled there following the communists' mainland takeover in 1949
In a December 2014 BBC interview, Xu Lin said, "Every mainland teacher we send, all of them will say Taiwan belongs to China. We should have one China. No hesitation."
Editorialized the Wall Street Journal last December: "Ms. Xu’s comments now challenge the legions of American university and K-12 leaders who have never raised concerns, even as most of them signed secret contracts with Beijing."
A July 20 report on the website of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs by research associate Andrew Lumsden, headlined "Big Dragon on Campus: China’s Soft Power-play in Academia," notes that Hanban's website describes Taiwan as “China’s largest island,” and “maps used in the institute’s classrooms depict Taiwan and large portions of the South China Sea as Chinese territory.”
Adds Lumsden, "The institute has also made efforts to suppress criticism of China, including an attempt at media censorship. In 2008 Yan Li, a former reporter for Chinese state-run media and director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, told students to ‘work together to fight with Canadian media.’”
Though no details on the substance of their talks was provided, Xu Lin got up close and personal with well-paid SDSU president Elliot Hirshman in May of last year, according to travel vouchers provided by the university after a request made under the California public records act.
"The president will be meeting with the Director General of Hanban regarding the Confucius Institute," says an April 23 filing for the trip, allowing Hirshman to exceed the university's hotel cost limit.
"The meeting is scheduled to take place at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel; the president's lodging was arranged for the same location."
Hirshman went round trip to Los Angeles on Amtrak business class, costing $112. The room expense was $310, with out-of-pocket costs pegged at $55, the document says.
KPBS, SDSU's taxpayer-financed public broadcasting operation that reports to Hirshman, has also paid its respects, without reporting on the controversial aspects of the Chinese program.
"San Diego State University's Confucius Institute was one of eight institutes singled out as model programs at a global Confucius conference in Beijing," says a January 2013 story, without mentioning that the event and its accompanying financial grants were funded by Hanban. "The honor comes with a $1 million grant."
SDSU's Confucius Institute director Li-Rong Cheng was quoted as saying, "We don’t believe in teaching just language. We believe in providing relevant, salient and authentic cultural arts experiences for our students and our community.”