CSU Will Close Its Confucius Institute Rather Than Risk Loss Of Federal Funding

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

A Colorado State University center partially funded by the Chinese government will close its doors later this year after Congress restricted funding for universities that host these programs.

There are hundreds of Confucius Institutes across the globe. Named after the famed Chinese philosopher, CSU’s Confucius Institute offers Chinese language and culture classes to the community at large. 

These education centers have faced bipartisan opposition in recent years, mainly due to its reliance on Chinese government funding. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which passed Congress on New Year’s Day after an override of a presidential veto, included language that restricted Department of Defense research funding at universities that host a Confucius Institute.

According to Kathleen Fairfax, the vice-provost for international affairs at CSU, the DOD funds too much to justify keeping its Confucius Institute open.

“We have all sorts of funding from the department of defense for various projects, whether they be independent kinds of research projects on a specific initiative, whether it be student funding in terms of graduate fellowships,” Fairfax said. “And we would never want to jeopardize any of the good stuff that's happening with some of these funded projects simply because of a small amount of money we're getting to put on some cultural programs.” 

In contrast, Fairfax said the Chinese government subsidizes about $150,000, a figure that pales in comparison to Defense funding. 

Fairfax said even without that funding, CSU plans to continue offering cultural enrichment programs.

“It's always nice to have a little financial support to do great programming, but we'll find a way to get some programming done without that money,” Fairfax said. “So, I'm confident that we're going to continue on with our mission of people-to-people diplomacy.”

Two people were employed through the Confucius Institute. One had planned to leave the university at the end of the year, while the other will be absorbed into Fairfax’s department.   

A growing number of U.S. universities have shuttered Confucius Institutes. In 2019, the federal government withheld funding from university critical language programs if there was an Institute on-campus, which led to several closures. 

Recently, President Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director, Williams Burns, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence he recommends shutting down Confucius Institutes, viewing them as propaganda tools. 

“Programs such as Confucius Institutes fund Chinese-language learning and provide the CCP direct access to university officials,” Burns wrote. “Beijing uses this access to spread positive portrayals of China, and steer conversations from topics sensitive to the CCP.”

Fairfax said she hasn’t personally seen any attempts from the Institute to spread propaganda. She said the center’s focus is on equal cultural exchange. 

“It really is limited to community engagement on language and culture,” Fairfax said. “I can't speak for every single Confucius Institute in the U.S. but I have not seen it as a national threat or a national security threat at all, but I understand the larger implications of intertwining Chinese government funding and U.S. universities.”

CSU’s Confucius Institute will close in June. The Community College of Denver also housed a Confucius Institute, which closed last September due to “budgetary and environmental circumstances.”