SALT LAKE CITY — A resolution introduced at the Utah State Legislature this week calls for shutting down Chinese language learning programs at two universities, because of national concerns over security problems and influence by the Chinese government.
For several years, the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah has been a part of campus offerings. It served as a way to raise awareness around Chinese culture, featuring fun programs and instructors from China.
"It's been everything -- from teaching Chinese language, to raising cultural awareness, sponsoring films, musical performances, art exhibits on campus, public lectures," listed off Chris Nelson, spokesperson for the University of Utah.
Nelson said the Confucius Institute has been successful at the U.
But in its years of connecting U of U students with the East Asian country, Confucius Institutes have gained negative, national attention with accusations and warnings that claim the institutes go beyond a curriculum of culture and language.
The concerns have grown into quite a laundry list, that Representative Candice Pierucci (R- Salt Lake City) named off during an interview with Fox 13 Tuesday.
"The State Department has actually identified Confucius Institutes as a Chinese Communist Party propaganda outlet. The Senate's Committee on Investigations has found a lot of concerns with the contracts that we have in place. The American Association of University Professors has serious issues with the academic freedom restrictions that are put in place in these contracts. So, and that's just the beginning of it," she explained. "There are concerns that those individuals who are employed by the Chinese communist government report back if any Chinese students participate in pro-democracy protests or activities."
There are currently two Confucius Institutes in Utah, Rep. Pierucci said, at Southern Utah University and the University of Utah.
She wants to close them down, and this week introduced H.J.R. 8 Joint Resolution to Protect Utah's Institutions of Higher Education from Chinese Communist Party Influence.
"This resolution calls on Utah's institutions of higher education to close their Confucius institutes and disclose certain information related to Confucius institutes to the Legislature," the resolution reads.
Rep. Pierucci said part of the resolution is looking at the Confucius Institute contracts. She said they have not actually been able to see them, and what they include.
But she said that from what they are seeing happening nationally, there are restrictions in place requiring professors to live by both Chinese and American law.
She also said that for students who think listing the Confucius Institute is a bonus for their resume, it's instead a detriment and would serve as a red flag on any background checks.
"This is creating serious barriers," she said. "And more than that on a more serious level, is a huge security problem for the safety and wellbeing of those students."
Nelson said they have always felt comfortable in their contract with the Confucius Institute, and they have been able to maintain academic freedom.
"Our contract has avoided some of the issues that I think have popped up elsewhere nationally in terms of, is there kind of undue influence by the Chinese government," he said.
In 2019, Nelson said, the U received $200,000 as part of their contract, which he pointed out is just a small sliver of the University of Utah's overall $5 billion budget.
He added that there is already a state law in place that requires all universities to disclose where foreign funding and investment comes from, and the University of Utah has continued to do that through the Utah System of Higher Education.
Even if the U of U has felt no issue with the Confucius Institute locally, Nelson said they still plan to "sunset" the program in the next two years.
The U has been supporting Chinese language through other ways, he said. They had plans to close the Confucius Institute by the summer of 2023.
If H.J.R. 8 passes, they'll have to move that timeline up to the end of 2022 as outlined in the resolution.
"This legislation, we are in support of," Nelson said. "And, just kind of moves up our time frame a little faster than we were initially planning."
They would have just under two years to make the transition, and Nelson said they'll look at other ways to expose students to the Chinese language and raise awareness of the culture.
"Hopefully that's also an amount of time for universities to have a replacement program in place that is solely operated by the university and obviously structured from within, so that those opportunities to learn Mandarin Chinese are still on campus," Rep. Pierucci said.
Nelson explained that they are letting students know, so that the resolution doesn't come as a surprise.
He said they don't expect this to impact their Bachelor of Arts Degree in Chinese.