University of Montana

Main Hall at the University of Montana

The University of Montana has joined a growing number of U.S. campuses shuttering Confucius Institutes, which operate to promote Chinese language and culture with funding from the Chinese government, a UM director confirmed Tuesday.

UM's website previously boasted the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center was "the proud home of the only Confucius Institute in the Northern Rockies." Launched in 2008, the institute provided education, public programs, and teacher training on Chinese language and culture in Montana. 

Last summer, lawmakers across the country were growing increasingly concerned the institutes were being used by China to covertly influence public opinion. At least 10 of the more than 90 institutes that had operated in the U.S. had closed as of January 2019, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Tuesday, Mansfield Center director Deena Mansour said the decision at UM came as part of the flagship's effort to set program priorities for the campus, a project aimed at addressing a budget shortfall. She said the arrangement with China for UM to host a Confucius Institute concluded in March.

“We appreciate the cultural programs provided to our community by the Confucius Institute, and especially the leadership of its director, Suhan Chen," Mansour said in a statement. "We look forward to expanding our partnerships in China as we continue to support globally-minded leaders of integrity.”

She said Suhan is no longer at the Mansfield Center but remains at UM to close out the Confucius Institute. Suhan could not be reached Tuesday.

Mansour noted the Office of the Provost and Office of the President had been involved in the decision. UM has stressed it provides a global education, and Montana has historic ties to Asia through the late Sen. Mike Mansfield; former U.S. Ambassador to China and former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, and other diplomatic and trade relations.

UM spokeswoman Paula Short said the campus remains committed to “providing Montanans with exposure to world cultures and languages.”

“We continue to reimagine our approach to delivering language through the lens of culture,” Short said in a statement.

However, Mansour said money from the Confucius Institute was designated for specific purposes, and different sources of money would allow more flexibility.

Last year, the Mansfield Center estimated the Chinese government funded about $150,000 of its $5 million budget.

"Identifying alternate funding sources will allow us the freedom to assess the best way to support mutual relations between the U.S. and China within the Priorities for Action framework," Mansour said in an email Tuesday, referencing UM's plan to set priorities.

Some institutes on other campuses teach Chinese to university students, but the one at UM focused on kindergartners through high school students, offering language lessons and cultural festivals.

Mark Thane, superintendent for Missoula County Public Schools, said through a spokesperson the district is in conversation with the Mansfield Center to determine the best way to meet the needs of students studying Chinese. The number of children served was not immediately clear.

"We have appreciated the long partnership with the Mansfield Center on developing unique educational opportunities for our students, including language and culture instruction, speakers and international exchange programs," Thane said in a statement.

Federal legislation last summer had prevented Pentagon spending on Chinese language teaching by Confucius Institutes. The Mansfield Center housed both the Confucius Institute and the Defense Critical Language and Culture program, the latter funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

At the time, former Mansfield Center Director Abraham Kim had said he did not believe the institute at UM was in peril of closure due to legislation, although he noted rules had not yet been developed. But he said the institute at UM was structured in a way that protected academic freedom and kept a firewall between funding streams.

In January, Inside Higher Ed reported at least 10 campuses announced Confucius Institute closures in the last year as political pressure mounted. Newsweek reported more closures were expected.

The federal prohibition required institutions that host the Chinese hubs and receive Department of Defense funding to receive waivers. However, Newsweek said the Pentagon confirmed it has granted no waivers to any applicants.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, has stressed the importance of U.S.-China relations in the past.

But Press Secretary Julia Doyle said in response to UM's decision that Daines "and others, including the FBI, have long had concerns about the threat to our academic freedom that these Chinese government-run Confucius institutes pose.''

Mansour noted the Mansfield Center will continue to foster links with China and education about the global power. She said the institute provided Chinese language instruction in local high schools and across the state via the Montana Digital Academy.

"Such programs will continue with alternate funding sources, such as the Mansfield Foundation endowment, appropriated by Congress at the Center’s founding," Mansour said.

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