World / US and Canada

US tries to clear up confusion over institutes

By Tan Yingzi in Washington and Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily) Updated: 2012-05-26 07:52

The US Department of State will sort out a visa issue that affects Confucius Institute teachers in the country and will "do its best to fix it without having anybody have to leave", said department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Thursday, following confusion over a visa policy directive issued on May 17.

The directive was sent to universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes, a program of the Chinese government to promote Chinese language and culture overseas.

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The US Department of State reissued a statement, saying the Confucius Institutes in the United States will continue with their courses, and the institute's Chinese teachers on American campuses do not have to leave. 

The document said faculty members who enter the United States through exchange program visas but also teach elementary or secondary school students are violating visa rules and must return to China by June 30 to reapply for an appropriate program.

If enacted, the directive could force as many as 51 teachers to return to China. About 600 teachers currently work in Confucius Institutes in the US, according to Confucius Institute Headquarters, also known as Hanban.

Nuland told reporters on Thursday at the State Department's daily briefing that the US values people-to-people exchanges with China. She said the directive isn't aimed at interfering with Confucius Institute operations but previous "muddling and messing up" in the exchange program visa.

"So we're going to sort these out. Nobody's going to have to leave the country," she said. "It's all going to get cleared up. But there was some confusion on the front end, so we're going to fix it."

Schools were also taken aback by the directive's demand that Confucius Institutes must obtain US accreditation in order to continue accepting foreign scholars and professors as teachers.

"The department is reviewing the academic viability of the Confucius Institutes. Based on the department's preliminary review, it is not evident that those institutes are US-accredited," the directive states.

But according to a Chinese education official who participated in Thursday's meeting with State Department officials, the accreditation issue appeared to be the result of miscommunication between different US administrative divisions about the status of Confucius Institutes, and the State Department may not pursue it anymore.

"The accreditation issue has been mostly cleared up through our candid discussion," the official told China Daily on the condition of anonymity.

"The US State Department will make proper arrangements for those affected and ensure the smooth operation of Chinese-language programs at the schools."

The first Confucius Institute in the US was established at the University of Maryland in 2005. Since then, Hanban has dispatched more than 2,100 teachers to 81 Confucius Institutes across the country, which are jointly established by US and Chinese universities. Each institute is run independently.

The issue has drawn grave concerns among US educators.

"We were quite taken aback at the State Department's directive, which has caused us to suspend some of our programs, disrupted our planning and created a great deal of uncertainty for our staff from China," said Kristin Stapleton, director of the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo.

"At a time when universities and K-12 schools should be encouraged to work together closely to improve education in the United States, it's hard for me to understand why the State Department has decided to throw a roadblock in the way of some very fruitful partnerships."

Peng Tao, director of the Confucius Institute at Alfred University in western New York, said the directive severely hurts US universities.

"I doubt whether policymakers have a sound understanding of the huge demand for qualified Chinese teachers in the US and how these teachers have contributed to bilateral cultural and economic cooperation," he said.

Both sides need to find a middle way to resolving the visa issue, said Huajing Maske, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Kentucky.

"I understand the concern about the exchange program visa from the State Department. But I would also like to think that the department is thinking about and preparing for the expansion of the Chinese programs in the K-12 schools, brought on by the huge success of these programs and the warm welcome they have received," she said.

As the number of Confucius Institutes in the US grows to meet the strong demand for Chinese-language study, the program is also facing criticism from some politicians.

In March, the US Congress held a hearing on China's public diplomacy in the US and strongly criticized the operation of the Confucius Institutes.

Kelly Dawson in New York contributed to this story.

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