September 26, 2013

Maine leaders laud wisdom of Confucius Institute

Establishment of the language school at USM is seen as a useful way to increase ties to China and its export markets.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Nicole McCallum, with the Chinese and American Friendship Association of Maine, does a celebration dance during the inaugural ceremony for the Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013.

John Patriquin / Staff Photographer

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:

ngallagher@pressherald.com

 

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