The University of Idaho, like every other public education institution, stands hat-in-hand before the Idaho Legislature each year in hopes of securing adequate funding. In 2015, the U of I had to discontinue 19 separate degree options, including bachelor degrees in American Studies, Art Education and Medical Technology. But when university officials opted to launch a Chinese studies program in 2013—a program that has since grown dramatically in Moscow and has now extended to Boise—the U of I entered into a unique partnership with the Confucius Institute, an education outpost of the People's Republic of China, to help fund the Idaho program.
When asked if the institute was the university's best option to fast-track the expansion of its international language studies program, U of I Confucius Institute Co-Director Dr. Matthew Wappett quickly answered, "Absolutely."
"When you have a partner who brings a significant amount of economic clout to the table, that helps," he said.
The U of I Confucius Institute is the result of a three-way partnership among Idaho's oldest public university, the Beijing-based Confucius Institute and the South China University of Technology, the U of I's new sister-college for the purpose of exchange.
Under the terms of the partnership, the Guangdong Province-based university provides instructors to facilitate many of the courses at the U of I Confucius Institute. Two Chinese professors were recently assigned to Boise, where they'll teach introductory Chinese and Taiji, aka Tai Chi, the centuries-old Chinese martial art.
The Boise classes are only a sample of how much the U of I Confucius Institute offers in Moscow, which includes elementary, intermediate and advanced Chinese language; Chinese culture; and Chinese cinema. The institute also sponsors monthly gatherings of a Chinese food club, Chinese movie night and several symposiums and lectures under the umbrella "China on the Palouse," to explore the history of Chinese in Idaho dating back to the 1860s. Between 50 and 75 students already participate in the Moscow-based Confucius Institute.
"We're particularly excited because later this year we expect to go before the Board of Education and propose a major in Chinese," said Wappett. "We'll grow as much as there is capacity."
The U of I Confucius Institute's budget for last year was approximately $320,000, with half of the funds coming from the Chinese government. China will fund half the proposed 2016 budget of around $380,000, which has led some to question what influence the Beijing-based headquarters and the Chinese government have on curriculum and what is—and isn't—taught.
"The Confucius Institute is similar to France's Alliance Francaise or Germany's Goethe-Institut," said Wappett. "The syllabi for our courses are all developed at our university, follow university guidelines and are all approved by me."
When asked if history or current events textbooks at the Confucius Institute might include the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader reviled by Chinese leaders, Wappett laughed.
"We actually do have textbooks on Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama? I don't know if you would find him in those textbooks," said Wappett. "We're not tied to those books. It's a sensitive conversation. But a good example is me. My background in Chinese comes from Taiwan. That's where I first learned Chinese. China has very strained relations with Taiwan. I have written blog posts about that and we talk about Taiwan all the time."
Wappett's co-director, Dr. Hexian Xue, said she underwent a thorough vetting process before joining the U of I in 2014 (her contract continues through 2019). "The textbooks are used internationally, and it's important to point out we are members of the U.S. Chinese Language Teachers Association," she said.
The Confucius Institute has been a source of controversy at other universities. The University of Pennsylvania said "no" to an institute. More than 170 faculty members petitioned the president of the University of Chicago to reject the institute, calling it an "academically and politically ambiguous initiative." The university, after initially hosting a Confucius Institute, severed its ties in 2014. Perhaps the most stinging criticism came from the American Association of University Professors, which in June 2014 stated, "Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom."
Wappett said even he is questioned occasionally by colleagues about the university's relationship with China regarding the Confucius Institute.
"A lot of it is misinformation and the notion that we shouldn't be dealing with China. Honestly, in my opinion, that's the wrong approach to take. Yes, I've heard from faculty who have had concerns about whether the university is being influenced by China," he said. "But my answer is: absolutely not. All of our programs and activities are developed here. I develop a budget and submit it to the [China headquarters of] the Confucius Institute, and all they want is to see that the university provides half of the funding."
More important, Wappett and Xue said, they're busy building the Boise presence of the Confucius Institute by offering classes to both enrolled U of I students and the general public.
"Yes, these Boise classes are open to non-enlisted students as well," said Xue. "Plus, we'll be bringing in artists, speakers and special classes."
Wappett said projections from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's office rank China second or third among Idaho's international trading partners.
"Most Idahoans aren't aware of how close Idaho's connection is to China already," he said. "With China opening up and its massive economic power, finding opportunities to promote understanding is a benefit to all of us."