Webster University pushed back Thursday against demands from Sen. Josh Hawley that it “reconsider” its relationship with the China-sponsored Confucius Institute, urging him to turn over evidence that it is being used for “a nefarious purpose.”
Webster President Elizabeth Stroble wrote a letter to Hawley a day after he used questions raised by FBI Director Christopher Wray about the purpose of Confucius Institutes in the United States to urge the school and the University of Missouri to reconsider the relationship.
Webster University is a private, non-profit school with its main campus in Webster Groves in St. Louis County and satellite campuses “around the world,” Stroble wrote.
“The Confucius Institute at Webster University furthers the important goal of educating our students with a global perspective and is consistent with our long-standing commitment to diversity,” Stroble wrote.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Hawley, a Missouri Republican, is a member, Wray said college and university presidents should consult FBI field offices for information about the institutes.
If there are specific reasons for concern about the Confucius Institute at Webster, Hawley should spell them out, Stroble wrote.
“We have no reason to believe that the Confucius Institute at Webster University creates the risks described in your letter; however, if you are aware of evidence that anyone is using the Confucius Institute at Webster University for a nefarious purpose, please share such evidence with us without delay,” she wrote.
In response, Hawley spokesperson Kelli Ford sent a statement that Webster is not taking the senator’s concerns seriously.
“Given the amount of evidence produced by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), of which Senator Hawley is a member, and the FBI, it is incumbent upon universities not to be dismissive of the very serious security concerns posed by Confucius Institutes,” Ford wrote. “Webster University owes it to its students and Missourians to do its due diligence and meet with the FBI regarding concerns with universities partnering with the Chinese government.”
The statement noted those concerns “are why dozens of universities, including Texas A&M University, the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan, and others, have ended their relationships with Confucius Institutes."
In letters to MU and Webster, and in a news release about the letters, Hawley portrayed the Confucius Institutes as a propaganda effort of the Chinese government intended to dampen criticism over the country’s policies toward Tibet and Taiwan and military suppression of the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The island of Taiwan was returned to Chinese sovereignty after World War II but the Communist revolution of 1949 was not able to defeat the Nationalist forces that fled there in 1949. Taiwan has sought to assert its independence but China considers it a breakaway province under its authority. China has cracked down on Tibetan nationalism and the nominal leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, fled in 1962.
In its response, the University of Missouri stated through spokesperson Christian Basi that it was reviewing its relationship with the Confucius Institute on campus and had consulted with the FBI about China’s goals in promoting the institutes. In a statement, Basi said the university appreciated Hawley’s concerns but said the local institute does not have any role in determining academic subjects or issues discussed at MU.
According to Hawley’s letter, there are 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide and more than 100 in the United States. They are sponsored by Chinese universities and the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban.
Like in Columbia, the Confucius Institute at Webster provides Mandarin language and culture classes at the university as well as elementary and secondary schools in the St. Louis area, Stroble wrote.
“These learning experiences have equipped countless individuals – many of them, your constituents – with the language skills and cultural awareness needed to engage with and influence their Chinese peers,” she wrote.
In his letter, Hawley stated that Confucius Institutes interfere with academic freedom and freedom of speech, pointing to articles describing the decision by North Carolina State University to cancel a campus appearance by the Dalai Lama in 2009 after pressure from that university’s Confucius Institute. North Carolina State was one of the schools that severed its ties to the Confucius Institute in 2018.
Such interference does not happen at Webster, Stroble wrote.
“We take academic freedom very seriously and will not sacrifice it for the sake of any relationship,” she wrote.
Spokesperson Patrick Gilbin said Webster hosted Tibetan monks for three days in 2017 for an event that included lectures and distribution of material about Tibet and its relationship with China.
“From our contract, there are absolutely no clauses whatsoever that gave the Confucius Institute the right to have any say whatsoever in our curriculum,” he said.