University of Chicago ‘suspends’ its Confucius Institute

While the Internet has been aglow with hype about new social media network Ello, another story has been the rounds and deserves special note here: The University of Chicago will not renew the Confucius Institute that is operating in its Hyde Park campus.

The Economist has a piece on Chicago’s about-face which is a good summary  of the issue, and Inside Higher Ed has an even longer piece on the topic. Basically, many academics at the university felt that the Confucius Institute, a cultural outreach center with roots in the Chinese government, went beyond the role played by other cultural institutions such as the Germany’s Goethe Institut and France’s Alliance Française — specifically, they worried that the Institute’s presence interfered with free speech and open debate about the actions of China and its government.

What does this have to do with anthropology, other than the fact that it is part of our global, cross-cultural world? The answer is that much of the opposition to the Institute came largely from well-known anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who wrote about the problems of the Institute at The Nation as well as here at Savage Minds. Furthermore, given Chicago’s national status, this decision will probably make other universities think seriously about their own relationship with the Confucius Institute program.

There are several important points that remain clear now: Was it pressure from faculty or from China that led to the UC’s administration to suspend the center? Just how final is this ‘suspension’? Whatever the answer to these questions eventually turns out to be, its gratifying to see that, for the time being, the university is acting in accordance with its core values, and that anthropologists have played an important role in this process.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org