The University of Missouri will cancel its contract with the Confucius Institute, a relationship that has been targeted by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, because of expensive new requirements for additional personnel in language classes offered by Columbia Public Schools.
The contract will end in August, six months before it was otherwise scheduled to end, according to a news release issued Wednesday by MU.
"We were notified by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs this past July that due to changes in State Department guidance, we would now be required to have a certified Mandarin Chinese language teacher in every classroom with a Confucius Institute staff member,” Mary Stegmaier, interim vice provost for international programs, said in the release. “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.”
The university will continue to support the Chinese-language program in Columbia schools so students can continue their studies. The district will hire instructors to teach alongside certified teachers, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said in the release.
“Children who have started Mandarin Chinese in middle school will be able to continue studying Chinese and children interested in learning Chinese will be able to begin their studies in high school," Stiepleman said.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on the decision. The MU Confucius Institute referred a reporter to the MU News Bureau, which issued the release.
On July 15, the State Department notified MU that it had found several issues during a visit to Columbia to review the activities of people brought to the United States by the Confucius Institute. During the visit, regulators "discovered a number of potential regulatory violations that the University of Missouri-Columbia should correct," said a letter from Henry Scott, director of the Office of Private Sector Exchange Program Administration.
The first problem listed in the letter was the kind of supervision provided to interns brought to Columbia to teach Chinese. The Confucius Institute has 13 interns teaching Chinese in Columbia schools and each is supervised by a certified teacher. That met previous federal guidelines, MU spokesman Christian Basi said.
The letter states that is no longer good enough. Because the teachers cannot speak Mandarin Chinese themselves, "they cannot evaluate the substance or the quality of information and language skills the UMCI exchange visitor is teaching the students," Scott wrote.
The interns are also not primarily engaging in activities as students because they are teaching, another possible violation, Scott wrote.
Other issues Scott cited include the role of the Chinese co-director of the program, who should be engaged in research, not administration, and the insurance coverages provided to the interns.
Confucius Institutes are funded through the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Office of Chinese Language Council International. There are more than 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide and more than 100 on U.S. college campuses. Confucius Institutes have been opening since 2004. The one at MU began in 2011 with a five-year agreement, renewed in 2016.
In the agreement, the institute agreed to provide Chinese language instruction, certify Chinese language teachers, provide information and consultation on China’s education and culture, and conduct language and cultural exchanges. The institute began a partnership with Columbia Public Schools in 2012 to provide training for Chinese language teachers in elementary and secondary school classrooms.
Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said the arrangement with the Confucius Institute and MU had been working "really well." There had been no indication from the district's certified teachers in the Chinese language classrooms that the students were not learning the language.
All students in grades 7 through 12 currently taking Chinese language courses would be able to continue through their senior year, Baumstark said. In the 2020-21 school year, it would be offered to students in grades 8-12 and only to high school students beginning in 2021-22.
"We plan to hire local instructors who will teach along certified world language instructors" to continue the program, Baumstark said.
Asked if she thought politics played a role in the decision, Baumstark said "no."
"It's my understanding that the change is due to recommendations from the State Department," she said.
The State Department letter was written just a few weeks before Hawley sent a letter to Missouri universities asking them to consider severing their ties to the institutes.
The Chinese government supplies Confucius Institutes with material that portrays China in a positive light and downplays issues associated with Taiwan, Tibet and the Tiananmen Square protests, Hawley wrote on July 24.
“These Confucius Institutes are, in short, a tool for China to spread influence and exercise soft power in its rivalry with the United States,” Hawley wrote.
Hawley on Wednesday tweeted his reaction to the university's decision.
"Pleased Mizzou is shutting down the #China Communist Party funded 'Confucius Institute.'" Hawley's Twitter message read. "As the State Department warned Mizzou in July 2019 and as I have repeatedly stated, this program presented security risks for students & university as a whole."
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, also issued a statement about MU's decision, writing that it helped advance China's world power agenda.
"For over a year, I have been meeting with officials at both the University of Missouri and Columbia Public Schools to express my concerns with the Confucius Institute," Hartzler wrote. "I applaud the University of Missouri's decision to end its ties with this Chinese-government run program."
The institutes have also been a way for China to steal U.S. intellectual property, Hawley wrote in July.
"Most troubling of all, Confucius Institutes pose a danger to our national defense and security,” Hawley wrote. “Our nation’s top law enforcement and national security officials have been vocal about the threat of Confucius Institutes and other Chinese initiatives as a conduit for espionage and research theft.”
The university defended the relationship, stating that it has not been limited or seen evidence of intellectual property theft.
“The university’s commitment to academic freedom and free speech has not changed in any way since the arrival of the Confucius institute,” Basi said at the time. “We steadfastly defend our academic freedom and our faculty’s freedom and the right of free speech for the university community and our visitors. No activity has been banned or stopped as a result of this partnership.”
At the time, the university said it would review the relationship but did not reveal that the State Department was questioning how it was operated in Columbia.
After receiving Scott's letter, the university said it would limit the activities of Confucius Institute personnel designated as a professor or research scholar to the guidelines of federal law. The university also asked for, and received, permission to figure out how to provide the Chinese-fluent classroom supervision required by federal rules.
The decision to end the relationship now is not related to Hawley's concerns, Basi said.
"They are two separate matters," Basi said. "We are making this change and decision because of financial reasons."