Pitt defends Confucius Institute language program as autonomous from China


Confucius Institutes around the country have come under increasing scrutiny as the trade war between the U.S. and China heats up. But Belkys Torres, executive director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies, which houses the institute at Pitt, insists that the program here is unique and a model for other colleges.

Despite that, the institute’s language internship program has been suspended this year after visa issues arose for 15 Chinese scholars who were set to arrive this fall to teach Mandarin in 14 high schools and colleges throughout the region, including Pitt–Greensburg, which was forced to cancel its language classes.

The State Department’s Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration (OPA) conducted an audit in September 2018 that included 17 pages of questions during a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with the Office of International Services, Torres and legal counsel, Torres said.

Pitt never received any feedback from OPA until June — three days before the Chinese students were scheduled to board planes to Pittsburgh. Then Pitt was told OPA would require changes in the language program and if those changes weren’t made, then the incoming scholars might be denied visas.

“We have to, in the meantime, suspend the program for this year, because we don’t want the Chinese scholars to get into a situation where their visa may have been denied during transit or, even worse, after they were already here,” Torres said.

The modifications that the State Department required were “open ended,” Torres said. “We’re still in working with legal teams, both internally and externally to Pitt, to try and discern the recommendations that have been sent to us and to try and discern how to continue our conversations with OPA. But we understand that it’s going to take a series of months before we have a full sense of what might be possible moving forward.”

The one modification would require greater supervision of the Chinese scholars in the classroom, including being accompanied by Mandarin-speaking co-teachers — something in short supply in Western Pennsylvania.

Many of the complaints that have been made against the Confucius Institutes, which are jointly funded by the Chinese government, are that they are being used to advance a Chinese agenda and spread propaganda. Several universities have closed their Confucius Institutes over the past 10 years, according to Inside Higher Education.

At a meeting of the University Senate Research Committee last fall, Alan DiPalma, director of the Pitt Office of Trade Compliance, said Chinese language and cultural programs on college campuses, such as the Confucius Institute, continue to be scrutinized by Trump administration officials. “Universities have been targeted because they feel they were easy entrance points for individuals to come in and conduct espionage,” he said.

“Unfortunately, those examples overshadow the real good that comes from most of these. They have done a lot of good. Most of them are above-board. They do what they say they're doing. There’s accountability, there's oversight at institutions like ours.”

Torres said in the 12 years the institute has been at Pitt, there have never been any complaints like these.

“Our program is unique in the country and in the world, in that it’s the program that provides the most oversight and professional development opportunities for the scholars, both inside and outside the classrooms,” she said. About 10 other schools in the U.S. have used Pitt as a model for building their own institutes, Torres said.

She said Pitt’s partnership with Hanban — the Chinese government agency that sponsors the institutes — and with the universities in China that send the students scholars is incredibly strict.

“Academic freedom is absolutely something that we champion and is embedded in all of our partnerships,” she said. “The ability for us, as an institution, to decide how we train the scholars, what curriculum they’re going to use in the classroom, how we offer cultural programming — all of that is up to our purview.”

Torres stressed that all of the Confucius Institutes are different in what they offer and how they are structured.

“What distinguishes ours from others is that from the very beginning in 2007, we were able to dictate terms of how our partnership was going to work,” she said. “We were very, very cognizant of how vigilant we would be and how much control we would have over the training of our China scholars and the internship program, the oversight of the assessment that we offer of that program and all of the participants, and the way in which we partner with our K-12 and college schools in order to provide them the expertise that they need to offer a resource that otherwise would not be available to their student body.”

For now, the Confucius Institute at Pitt, which has two full-time staff members, will continue to offer cultural programming, lectures and workshops.

“Our faculty members who belong to our China Council have been consulted on this matter, and they believe strongly that there’s a lot of good work not only coming out of the Confucius Institute, but also the entire Asian Studies Center under which is housed,” Torres said. “And they believe strongly that, you know, any ramification to the way in which we run our Confucius Institute will have reverberations and consequences for our partnerships across China.”

In announcing the suspension of the language program, Ariel Armony, vice provost for global studies, said, "Despite this unwelcome and unexpected development, our network of global engagements is growing. Moving forward, we will continue to support and strengthen this network while adhering to all laws governing research, innovation and international partnerships. Such work is vital to our mission—and our future success. As Chancellor Patrick Gallagher shared in a recent message to the University community, our international pursuits and collaborations are truly ‘the oxygen for the University’s vibrant and rich academic environment.’ ”

In addition to the Chinese students, there are around 40 others who are waiting for paperwork to be processed before they can come to campus, even though they were scheduled to start in the fall term. The University is on track to show a decline in international students this year, which has been the trend nationally, Torres said.

“The challenge for us is that we can’t yet attest to what exactly is to blame for that,” she said. “What we will suspect, as others around the country will, is that it’s a series of different factors, some of them having to do with visa delay, some of them having to do with nationalistic rhetoric that creates a bit of fear.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 412-648-4294.


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