A member of MU's Confucius Institute plays with children at 2019 Homecoming Parade

A member of MU’s Confucius Institute plays with onlooking children during the MU Homecoming Parade in October. MU announced Wednesday it will end a 2011 partnership with the institute in the wake of new State Department requirements.

MU is cutting ties with the Confucius Institute, the university announced Wednesday.

The nearly nine-year partnership will come to an end in August, six months before its scheduled end in February 2021.

The institute is funded almost solely by the Chinese Ministry of Education and is part of a network of similar institutes across the country. Since its opening at MU in 2011, the Confucius Institute has hosted lectures, events and exchange trips embracing Chinese culture at MU and Columbia Public Schools.

As part of the institute’s relationship with the school district, visiting Chinese instructors teach classes in Mandarin Chinese. These instructors come for one year only and are paired with a full-time public school teacher certified in a foreign language, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

MU cited recent changes to U.S. State Department guidelines — which require state-certified teachers in Mandarin Chinese to be present in every classroom with Confucius Institute staff — as too costly to continue its partnership with the institute. MU notified Shanghai Normal University, its partner in the agreement with the institute, of its decision Wednesday.

“While Missouri-certified teachers were in the classroom with the CI staff, recruiting and supporting the necessary certified Chinese language teachers would be cost prohibitive,” Mary Stegmaier, MU interim vice provost for international programs, said in a university news release.

MU was notified of the federal guideline changes in July, and the State Department allowed the partnership to continue until the end of the 2019-20 academic year to give MU and Columbia Public Schools time to “consider the best options for continuing to offer Mandarin Chinese to students,” according to the release.

The Confucius Institute program, which includes 88 institutes throughout the United States, according to the National Association of Scholars, has faced national scrutiny from professors, politicians and the FBI regarding academic freedom and espionage.

MU had monitored the institute closely, with an audit in early 2019 finding no evidence of espionage or wrongdoing, UM System President Mun Choi said in September. He gave no indication then that MU would end its partnership early.

Other universities have closed their Confucius Institutes in recent years, due either to pressure from lawmakers or changes in State Department policy.

Chinese still an option for students

MU and Columbia Public Schools have pledged to work together to continue providing Mandarin studies after the partnership with the institute ends.

Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said the district will hire instructors to teach alongside certified district teachers and enable continued Chinese studies in high school. Because it’s Columbia, he said, there are “a number of people who have learned Chinese, are fluent or have it as a first language.”

MU has pledged to assist in the transition in whatever ways possible, spokesman Christian Basi said. The district will work with Michael Volz, an MU associate teaching professor of Chinese, to continue to improve the schools’ Chinese curriculum.

This year, 196 students in grades seven through 12 are enrolled in Chinese classes, Baumstark said. There are 13 instructors paired with 15 district teachers.

A letter is going out to parents of students in the class, explaining that their child may continue through the sequence of Chinese language classes, Baumstark said. Starting in the 2021-22 school year, the classes will be offered only at the high school level. Other options for students include Spanish, French, German, Latin and Japanese.

“We prepare kids for an ever-changing and unpredictable world, but one thing that is predictable and important is foreign language,” Stiepleman said.

He said he’s grateful for the work of former MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and former schools Superintendent Chris Belcher for their vision in creating the relationship between the district and the Confucius Institute.

Ties to the school district date almost back to the institute’s opening at MU in April 2011. The nonprofit’s mission has been to “(share) Chinese language and culture with the MU and Columbia communities.” University administrators touted the program’s ability to bolster Asian language offerings and cultural exchange opportunities during its opening ceremony at Jesse Hall.

A year later, the institute partnered with Columbia Public Schools, with a plan to train several district teachers in Chinese language and culture under the instruction of Chinese teachers. Students received Chinese language books and material, and schools began providing after-school cultural programs.

The institute donated about 2,000 Asian learning materials to MU’s Ellis Library in 2013, and district schools hosted a delegation of Chinese student-teachers from Shanghai Normal University and arranged an exchange program to send district students on a two-week summer trip in 2015. The trips are expected to continue in some form.

An increase in national scrutiny

All the while, the Confucius Institute program drew criticism on a national level. News that executives from the institute’s program ordered that materials be removed from the agenda of a 2014 academic conference in Portugal reemphasized concerns about academic freedom.

The American Association of University Professors issued a report in July 2014 urging universities to “renegotiate their agreements” with Confucius Institutes in order to have “unilateral control” over all academic matters relating to the program. At this time, about 90 American universities and eight Canadian institutions were partnered with the institute, and few universities sought to alter their agreements after the report.

The nature of scrutiny into the institute began to change in the years after, as Washington began to take notice of the Chinese-funded entity.

In a February 2018 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the agency had been monitoring Confucius Institutes around the country — news that was largely overshadowed by testimony in the same hearing regarding Russian election interference.

In a later hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July, Wray said the institutes had displayed “a fairly significant pattern of espionage,” calling them “part of China’s soft power strategy and influence.”

Lawmakers began to request that universities in their districts and states separate themselves from the institutes. Several campuses, such as the University of Texas A&M System, did so.

Although some Democrats expressed concern about the institutes, the most intense criticism came from Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who questioned Wray in that July hearing. Hawley called for MU to end its relationship with the Confucius Institute soon after in a letter to the university, calling the institute a tool for communist propaganda and a “danger to national defense.”

Choi, UM System president, responded to Hawley’s letter in a September press conference, assuring that the university was keeping a watchful eye over the institute.

He referenced an audit that the university performed for the program in early 2019, which he said found “no issues of barriers to academic freedom ... or any evidence of academic espionage.”

Basi, the MU spokesman, affirmed that sentiment in an interview but said MU shares wider concerns of academic espionage and remains in contact with law enforcement on local, state and federal levels to monitor any potential issues. He thanked elected officials, including Hawley, for their role in national discussions on the topic.

MU notified both those elected officials and the State Department of its decision prior to its Wednesday announcement, Basi said.

Hawley posted on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon that he is pleased MU will end its partnership with the institute.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

  • Galen Bacharier is an assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has reported on higher education, state government and breaking news. Reach him at galenbacharier@gmail.com or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

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