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Front Page » Opinion » Reaffirm college’s academic freedom after China pressuring

Reaffirm college’s academic freedom after China pressuring

Written by on September 10, 2019
  • www.miamitodaynews.com
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Reaffirm college’s academic freedom after China pressuring

On the pretext of protecting Miami Dade College from political influence, censorship, the stifling of free speech, and loss of academic freedom, a powerful faction has used political influence to censor, stifle free speech, and undercut academic freedom on campus.

How’s that for the irony of 18 months of political muscle that last week ousted the Confucius Institute’s language and cultural studies at the 165,000-student college?

The issue was that China provided and paid teachers, at no cost to public or students. Now the college is to do the language training and let the public and students pay. What a gain for us!

Helping to oversee the institute probably cost Lenore Rodicio, college provost and the number-two person to its president, an immediate jump to president last month. For some college trustees, any involvement in the institute is pure political poison.

When the institute exits this fall, it will be the last in Florida – the universities of South Florida, West Florida and North Florida had branches when US Sen. Marco Rubio began a drive to stamp them out, saying China was trying to “infiltrate American classrooms, stifle free inquiry and subvert free expression.”

It boggles the mind how barring ideas you abhor builds free inquiry and free expression when it actually establishes a party line that educators must not cross regarding China. You’d expect that in Cuba but not the US.

It’s not like Miami Dade College didn’t know China had communist principles when it accepted the institute with fanfare and became one of 300 US institutions to host a Confucius Institute.

The April 2010 unveiling trumpeted “the prestigious Confucius Institute, a language, business and culture center… The opening of the institute further enhances the college’s existing partnerships with Chinese government agencies, learning institutes and organizations.”

College announcements about the institute grew in tandem with businesses hopes to add trade and investment. When 26 Chinese vocational school principals sought to learn about career training in the US, Miami Today reported, they spent five days at the college shepherded by the institute.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in 2014 presented a “Doing Business in China” panel with remarks from its sponsor, the director of the college’s Confucius Institute. Enterprise Florida was also a sponsor.

As long as China remained a business and economic target, the Confucius Institute was a feather in the college’s cap. It was only when politics soured in Washington that anyone seemed to feel that the outpost of China was not a star.

So instead of offering insight into a powerful nation that has been communist for 70 years, new board members berated the college for hosting the interests of China.

The institute is not alone as a foreign backed or supported institution in Miami. Italy, Japan, Mexico, France and others have offered educational and cultural programs. They’ve always burnished Miami’s claim to being a global city. So did the Confucius Institute.

We need not support what a foreign nation does. More than 50 consulates here are government backed and funded, and what some countries do might give Americans pause. Still, we welcome them. Local interests tried very hard to get China to open a consulate but failed.

Other nations aid language training in middle and high schools. Like China, every nation that offers training does so out of self-interest, to promote the nation, its language and its culture. So far nobody has objected (maybe we shouldn’t give them any ideas).

Sen. Rubio’s stated concern has been that China put off limits at its institutes any discussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre and human rights. That’s probably true. But in what language classes would such things be a topic, in any language and with any nation?

This is not a defense of China. We would expect robust discussions of China in Miami Dade College classrooms under professors who deal with such critical issues as political repression. But we wouldn’t expect French language classes to deal with ethical issues of the French Revolution any more than the college’s English classes discuss the evils of American slavery. Very valid and important topics that should be examined critically, but the wrong classrooms.

China bars outside ideas, limits academic freedom, stifles free speech, and censors content, and its political influence crushes those whose thoughts don’t mesh with current ideology.

But now, as closer ties to China fall off the political path of a US administration that is waging a trade war and rapidly severing carefully forged links to the global giant, must we emulate China and ourselves limit academic freedom, stifle free speech, censor content and crush those who don’t mesh with current ideology?

That has never been the American way.

So it was doubly painful to see county Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr. “applaud and congratulate” the school, and himself, after “the Miami Dade College Board closed its Chinese-government-run Confucius Institute program today” because the program was “infringing on and interfering with academic freedom.” It was Mr. Bovo’s motion the day before calling for the closing that got an 11-1 county vote to pressure the college, though county hall plays no formal role whatsoever. (Credit Eileen Higgins with the courage and wisdom to vote “no.”)

The college board never met on the issue, said Chairman Bernie Navarro. It was to have discussed the Confucius Institute Sept. 17. Board action before then would have violated the Sunshine Law.

Rather, the college says, new interim President Rolando Montoya told Mr. Navarro  of the closing of Mr. Rubio’s bête noire.

A college spokesman and Mr. Navarro both gave as reason for the closing that institute enrollment has fallen. At the same time, Mr. Navarro says, “there were strong opinions from the community. We heard them – everybody heard them.”

But education should not be a popularity contest.

As for the institute, Mr. Navarro said, “China has it in their master plan…. it is something that China uses.” Still, he said, ‘the final decision was made on declining enrollment numbers.”

But after attacks on the institute within the college’s board over the past year, in the Miami City Commission, in the county commission and elsewhere, the enrollment issue seems to be a lame excuse: 36 students are enrolled, but there’s only one college staffer on payroll.

So, what’s the future of academic freedom at the college? Is subject matter to conform to the national party in power?

Miami groups have long bent freedoms to current events. Often those revolved around Cuba – we imitated the communist land by censoring its supporters. Now Venezuela is a hot spot. And then there’s China.

The college board no longer has on its Sept. 17 agenda the Confucius Institute, Mr. Navarro said Tuesday. Rather than rehash this sad episode, it would be wise for the board to affirm the academic freedoms that are honored across the land – principles that do not bow to any faction. Political correctness should end outside the classroom door.

Academic freedom is easy when all are in agreement. Like freedom of speech and the press, the hard cases are unpopular causes – or, in this case, nations. We can be fervently anti-communist without falling into their tactics.

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