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URI ending relationship with controversial Confucius Institute

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The University of Rhode Island is ending its partnership with the Chinese-funded Confucius Institute, an international program that has come under increased scrutiny by U.S. intelligence agencies.

There are more than 100 Confucius Institutes on college campuses throughout the United States. The organization says their mission is to promote Chinese language and culture.

But the institutes, which are funded by the Chinese government, have come onto the FBI’s radar over concerns that China was stifling academic freedom in the U.S.

Last week during testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Bill Priestap, assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division, told senators “there is across-the-board agreement that these institutes do not serve freedom of expression and freedom of inquiry.”

“The Confucius Institutes are a Chinese government-funded cultural institute; that means they are ultimately beholden to the Chinese government,” Priestap said. “There have been instances around the world where those institutes have quashed free speech.”

In August, lawmakers took aim at the institutes and tucked language inside the $716-billion John McCain 2019 National Defense Authorization Act which prohibited using federal money for Chinese language programs that also weave in Confucius Institute curriculum.

Linda Acciardo, a spokesperson for the University of Rhode Island, said in a statement the school didn’t want to risk losing out on federal funding, so it decided to “dissolve the relationship” with the institute by the end of May.

“We have learned that continuing with the Confucius Institute could jeopardize federal funding for the University’s Chinese Language Flagship Program, which is a highly successful language academic program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense,” Acciardo said. “URI is in the process of notifying other partners and stakeholders that it is terminating the Confucius Institute agreement.”

She noted that the school had control over the institute, including faculty selection.

“The Confucius Institute has been managed by the University, with all Chinese language instructors hired by URI faculty, who control the curriculum, program, and all academic matters,” she said. “There are strict guidelines to protect intellectual property, and there has been no evidence of Chinese propaganda infiltrating the program, nor any interference in URI’s management of the Institute.”

Acciardo said the university typically receives between $140,000 and $150,000 a year to fund the institute.

Earlier this month the University of Michigan also announced it was ending its contract with the institute.

Bryant University in Smithfield also hosts a Confucius Institute and has a satellite campus in Zhuhai, China. Repeated calls and an email to a Bryant spokesperson were not immediately returned.

Dr. James Mulvenon, a foreign policy expert with SOS International, a defense contracting company, testified at the hearing that there is heightened concern with colleges that have a footprint in China.

“One of the issues I’m looking at right now is are there intra-university technology transfers that are happening between a university in the United States and the satellite campus in China that are somehow evading our export control reviews,” Mulvenon said at the hearing. 

He also said many schools are “addicted” to the full tuition that Chinese students pay to attend a college in the United States.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Caitly Reynoso contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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