GORHAM – A Chinese language and cultural institute that has been controversial on some college campuses opened in Maine for the first time Wednesday.
The state’s first Confucius Institute, set up by Hanban, an arm of China’s Ministry of Education, officially opened at the University of Southern Maine. It is one of more than 90 Confucius Institutes in the United States and more than 400 worldwide.
The institute’s primary purpose is to provide language instruction with a focus on Mandarin. However, leaders in government, business and education in Maine also see it as a vehicle for increasing the state’s ties to China, the state’s third-largest foreign market. Maine goods worth more than $275 million were exported to China in 2011.
Last year, Gov. Paul LePage led a 13-member trade delegation to China. Officials who went on the trip reported that their Chinese counterparts were very interested in more exchanges of students and teachers.
At the time, about 1,000 Chinese students were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in Maine. Several of those programs have expanded in the last year.
“This is an opportunity to build a bridge, and that’s what we’re looking for here.” said Joseph McDonnell, dean of USM’s College of Management and Human Service and the director of the USM Confucius Institute.
Confucius Institutes, part of China’s diplomatic outreach, were created in 2004. Most focus on language and culture, while some have specific research roles or specialize in one topic, such as food.
Critics say the institutes have stifled academic freedom by asking host campuses and instructors to avoid discussing certain topics, such as Tibet, Falun Gong, human rights abuses, Taiwan and other issues considered controversial.
McDonnell said no such requests or issues were raised with the institute at USM.
But such concerns were significant enough to warrant a hearing in March 2012 before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. And the State Department has issued special guidance regarding the visas used by Chinese nationals working at Confucius Institutes.
Ted Sharp, who is the school superintendent in Gorham and a board member for the new institute, said the only way to get past such issues is to have resources, like Confucius Institutes, where the exchange of ideas, person-to-person, leads to better ties in the future.
“We need to build strategic partnerships with China,” said Sharp, who has three teachers and about 25 students from his district getting language instruction through the institute this fall.
Sharp, who studied Chinese history, said a language school is a good start to better relations. “Through languages, you build friendship.”
Several speakers at an opening ceremony Wednesday emphasized the value of improving relations with China.
“We hope the Confucius Institute will open doors,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, addressing the visiting Chinese university dignitaries who came to Maine for the opening.
Brennan said the institute should lead not just to a better appreciation of Chinese language and culture, but “to mutually advantageous economic programs.”
The institute’s offices in Bailey Hall have bright red Chinese lanterns hanging in the entryway, a display of traditional Chinese wedding costumes and a 6-foot-tall scroll on the wall depicting the Chinese symbols for “China,” “America” and “eternal friendship.”
A Confucius arrangement works this way: A host university partners with a university in China, which provides instructors and materials. USM’s partner is Dongbei University in Dalian, which was selected in part because Dalian is similar to Portland, with a large working port and a strong tourism and international business economy.
There are institutes at such premier universities as Stanford and Columbia. Nearby Confucius Institutes are at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Some universities, such as the University of California Berkeley, have refused to host the institutes, citing concerns about interference from their Chinese counterparts.
Several years ago, Michael Nylan, a professor of Chinese history at Berkeley, took an informal survey of 15 schools with Confucius Institutes and found two that had tried, unsuccessfully, to block certain guest speakers.
“When run well (i.e., without interference from the Hanban and without American administrators using them for low-cost or no-cost language instruction) the Confucius Institutes can add to campus life,” Nylan wrote in a recent email. “Berkeley doesn’t accept one, in large part because there has been a history of interference by both Chinese and U.S. administrators, so we think them more trouble, potentially, than they would be worth.”
McDonnell said banned topics and questions of academic freedom were never an issue in USM’s negotiations with Hanban, and the university made no agreements about topics that could not be discussed.
“Our (program) is really designed with our school of education to teach Chinese language, so we’re not confronted with those issues,” he said.
The plan to host a Confucius Institute was shared with faculty members and administrators, and no concerns were raised, he said.
Hanban, which provides the instructors and materials, also gave USM $150,000 in startup funds, and will provide about $100,000 a year to administer the institute, depending on the level of programming it offers, McDonnell said.
There is no cost to USM, which has struggled with deep budget cuts in recent years that have led to the elimination of some programs and instructors.
The institute at USM is starting with three Chinese professors who will teach Mandarin for teachers who want to teach it to students in kindergarten through high school.
USM has never before offered a Mandarin course, McDonnell said.
The professors will also teach basic Chinese language and culture to students in Portland, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Gorham and Topsham, and will teach a class for community members through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Professor Khibo He, who goes by the Western name “Herb,” said he likes teaching that class.
“I saw all these senior students and thought, ‘Wow, that’s different,’ ” he said.
About half of those students have visited China, he said. “I respect them because they are more experienced. It’s very special.”
The USM Confucius Institute will participate in cultural events, such as the recent Moon Festival.
The institute has several community partners, including the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, the Maine International Trade Center, the World Affairs Council and the Portland Regional Chamber.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: