State Department Denies Targeting Confucius Institutes but Holds to Decision on Visas

May 22, 2012

A recent State Department policy directive was not intended to disrupt the activities of Confucius Institutes, the university-based, Chinese-sponsored language and cultural centers, but rather was an effort to ensure that foreign academics and teachers at the institutes come to the United States under the correct visa categories, a State Department official said on Tuesday.

And the department appears to be backpedaling from its insistence in the memorandum, issued late last week, that the centers must be part of the sponsoring college's foreign-language program or apply for separate accreditation, a stance that had greatly troubled both American institutions and the Office of Chinese Language Council International, or Hanban, which oversees Confucius Institutes worldwide.

In an interview, the State Department official, who spoke with The Chronicle on the condition of not being named, called that section of the policy statement "confusing" and said it would be redrafted to clarify that Confucius Institutes that have partnerships with accredited colleges are in compliance with visa regulations.

Thomas A. Farrell, vice president for global engagement at the University of Nebraska, said he was glad to see the government "walking back" the accreditation language. He and other university administrators had questioned what accrediting body would certify Confucius Institutes and why independent approval was necessary. "One can put the cat back in the bag," said Mr. Farrell, who is a former State Department official.

Still, the department is holding firm to another part of the policy guidance. The administration official made it clear that Confucius Institutes cannot continue with what is, for many of the centers, a major part of their mission: providing Chinese-language teachers to elementary and secondary schools.

Taken by Surprise

Regulations related to J-1 visas, which are given to people participating in work- and study-based exchange programs, make it clear that foreign professors, academics, and students at the university level are prohibited from teaching in public or private schools at the precollege level, the State Department official said. Those visa holders will have to leave the United States by the end of June and must reapply for the correct visa to return to this country.

That decision has taken administrators at the roughly 70 American universities that host Confucius Institutes by surprise. "Shocked," is how Huajing Maske, the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky, describes her response to the memorandum. "I'm still just in shock."

Ms. Maske, who is currently in China with other Kentucky administrators, said she was contacted by Hanban officials after they received word of the policy directive. They too were confused, she said, asking detailed questions about whether and how American accreditation applies to language and cultural centers sponsored by foreign governments.

Hanban's director general has since sent a letter to American university presidents whose institutions host Confucius Institutes expressing concern about the State Department action and asking for their support. The institutes, she notes in the letter, are meant to strengthen relationships between China and the rest of the world.

In the days since the directive's release, speculation has swirled about the reasons behind the decision, especially because the institutes have been criticized by some for being too closely tied to the Chinese government.

'Simply a Regulatory Matter'

But the State Department official said the action was not intended to make Confucius Institutes a target and that the Obama administration supports their work. "This is not about the Confucius Institutes or about the Chinese model," she said. "This is just simply a regulatory matter."

As centers have proliferated at American colleges, and as they have brought in more teachers, it became clear to staff members within the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs who oversee exchanges that many of them were in violation of visa rules. The differing requirements for university-level "professors/research scholars" and precollege "teachers" are spelled out in regulations, the official said.

But in interviews, institute directors and administrators at more than a dozen colleges said they have always used the J-1 "teacher" category to bring in instructors for local schools, many for years. (Confucius Institutes have been on American campuses for nearly a decade.) "That's what all of us had done, and we go through the U.S. embassy in China," said Deborah Trott Pierce, who heads the institute at Webster University, in St. Louis. "We've always been upfront about it."

In fact, several directors said they had gotten word in recent days of visas issued to Chinese teachers scheduled to teach in summer programs or in the fall. Unless the institutes can find an alternative approach, those instructors will have to remain in China.

Thus far, the State Department has been unwilling to consider a grace period or to grant extensions to allow teachers already in the country to remain for the duration of their visas. "There's no wiggle room," Ms. Pierce said.

An Effort to Minimize Disruptions

For its part, the State Department said it had acted at the end of the academic year purposefully in order to minimize disruptions.

Confucius Institute directors say they are scrambling to find a solution by the time the school year begins in August or early September. The new rule could disrupt the plans of potentially hundreds of Chinese language teachers who currently work through university-based Confucius Institutes each year.

The University of Buffalo had planned to put eight Chinese-language teachers in local schools this fall through its Confucius Institute. Stephen C. Dunnett, vice provost of international education, is considering the possibility of working with third-party groups, such as the College Board, that are already approved to sponsor foreign teachers. But Mr. Dunnett said he has reservations about that route, worrying that it would put supervision for those visa holders "at arm's length" from the university.

"I worry," he said, "that we won't be able to keep our commitment to local schools."

At Webster, university administrators have offered to waive tuition costs if visiting language teachers, who are typically master's degree students at its Chinese partner institution, Beijing Language and Culture University, want to enroll as students in its graduate program in teaching Chinese as a second language. (Student visas are a different category and wouldn't be affected by the State Department's directive.) Students would be able to teach in local schools during the program's practicum, but only a fraction of the hours they now teach.

Another possibility is that state agencies or local school districts could sponsor J-1 visas for elementary- and secondary-school teachers. Some Confucius Institutes, such as the one at the University of Central Arkansas, already have such an arrangement. Center directors, like Ms. Maske at Kentucky, say they are open to this option but worry about the year or more it could take for districts or agencies to win approval to sponsor foreign visa holders. "You know how foreign languages work," Ms. Maske said. "If there's a disruption or a gap, that's a problem."

At the University of Pittsburgh, some 60 Chinese teachers, graduate students at Wuhan University, have come through the Confucius Institute since 2007, providing language instruction to more than 3,000 students. "We want to see if we can restructure" the exchange, said Michele Heryford, the center's director. "It's opened the eyes of schoolchildren in western Pennsylvania to China. We don't want to give that up."