SFSU kills Confucius Institute Program

In May, 2019, San Francisco State University (SFSU) announced it was closing its Confucius Institute program that had been in operation since 2005.

Closure was not due to concerns about academic freedom, freedom of speech, or even any suspicion of ulterior motives on the part of the teachers sent from China.  In the SFSU case, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 denied federal funds for an intensive Chinese language programs if a university also hosted a Confucius Institute, and SFSU has an excellent DOD funded language program.

Sure, DOD can kill Confucius Institutes.  But DOD has nothing on me. I helped kill another SFSU Chinese program ten years earlier.  That was not on the basis of politics, but solely academic rigor.

In 2010, Chinese and American universities were near their peak desire for joint exchange and degree granting programs.  Many of the best US schools – Harvard, Yale, Stanford – had programs in China, for both American and Chinese students.  Second tier American schools were eagerly establishing joint programs or 2x2 programs (two years in school in China, two years in the US, perhaps resulting in a highly valuable American degree). 

In this frenetic academic lovefest, San Francisco State University (SFSU) approached Zhejiang University of Science and Technology (ZUST) about a joint undergraduate civil engineering program.  An administrative official from SFSU – I don’t remember who – came to ZUST to promote the as-yet not completely defined program. He spoke in Chinese to our students - “Two years at ZUST, two years at SFSU, possibly a joint degree, possibly a SFSU degree.  A valuable exchange program in any case.”  He made a convincing case.

The fit was pretty good on paper.  ZUST had a new undergrad civil engineering program taught all in English, for both Chinese and foreign students.  There were about 35 students in the first year, with more to come.

SFSU had a large Asian student population, so it was accustomed to dealing with foreign students.  Foreign students paid full tuition.  There were a number of Chinese civil engineering faculty, so language problems could be minimized.  The SFSU civil engineering program was internationally accredited by ABET (Accreditation Bureau for Engineering and Technology).  No Chinese undergrad program in civil engineering was internationally accredited, so a joint degree would look mighty fine for a ZUST graduate looking to work outside China.

Even in 2010, there was extensive reporting of academic problems with Chinese students in exchange programs.  Yale cancelled its ecology and evolutionary biology program with Tsinghua in Beijing, after extensive plagiarism by Chinese students.  Everyone understood that Chinese learning, even in the best schools, was dominated by repetition and attention only to the book.

SFSU wanted to make sure ZUST students could do the work.   An SFSU core requirement was – still is – a course in American history.  I was a foreigner, so I was tapped to teach.

The ZUST administrators told me I should teach the course “American style”- to me, that meant quizzes and homework and writing and, above all, no cheating. I told the civil engineering dean that was a mistake.  I knew the quality of the students from prior courses, and cheating was rampant.  The school reiterated – “yes, just like you would in America.”  Reluctantly, I said yes.

There is a saying in China about universities in China compared with those in the US – “in China, it is difficult to get into the university, but once there, everyone graduates; in the US, it is easy to get into the university, and easy to flunk out.”

No need to belabor the details.  We had a standard textbook, the Eric Foner Give Me Liberty! with quizzes and very short – five page – writing requirements.  The English listening, speaking, and writing abilities of the Chinese students were adequate.  Their cultural preparation was not.

First off, no more than one or two of the eighteen Chinese students purchased the textbook.  It was expensive by Chinese standards – about $40 – but in the US, students would be buying six or eight of those each semester.  The twenty or so Chinese students were also roommates – they probably occupied a total of four or five dorm rooms – so joint studying would be possible, although tough.  But not possible for two students to read the book at one time.  They were unaccustomed to homework, written short answer questions from the chapter covered that week.  Most tried to copy the homework in class or right before class.  We had a quiz every week on the chapter – ten or fifteen minutes, to see if they had read – anything.  Most had read something, probably just looked at the powerpoints, but the cheating in the quizzes was blatant.  I tore up some quiz papers when students were looking at their phones and writing answers.  There were a lot of low grades on quizzes.

Paper submittals were very disappointing.  I spent more than one entire class – 135 minutes – on how to write – five paragraph essay, formatting and references, APA style. References and citations were a ... let us say, foreign ... concept. Students had powerpoint notes, other notes from me, and examples.  I emphasized the importance of good references and avoiding plagiarism.  This was not a completely wasted effort.  But mostly.  Papers came back in two or three different color fonts, with different size fonts, with the plagiarized sections often in one of the unique colors or sizes so there was no need to do any checking.  I didn’t know whether to feel discouraged or insulted that the plagiarism was so poorly done. 

References were often simply to “Baidu” the popular online source in China.  This was like using "Google" as a reference.  To be fair, Baidu did not provide good citations for its published materials, and there were few other sources for the students to use. The library was useless as a source for materials in any language.  Students had no access whatsoever to academic journals.  All blocked.

But they needed to know how to write an acceptable five page paper, even as engineering students.  A couple of the Chinese students got the idea.  A few more of the foreign students did.  I allowed students to rewrite papers after my comments.  Some did so.  Most did not.

I point out again that these were not problems with English language. These were cultural differences, and unwillingness to make the changes necessary if they were to venture, as is said in China, outside.  

With the plagiarism, refusal to correct the plagiarism, cheating, and general mopery, we had a lot of failures in the course.  About two-thirds of the class.

I had earnest meetings with several levels of faculty and administrators and deans.  They had warnings before and during the course.  But I had given them what they wanted.

The civil engineering students learned the wisdom of the second part of the saying about universities in the US, without having to actually attend school in the US and spend thousands of dollars for nothing.  No civil engineering student applied for the 2+2 program with SFSU.   The program died a natural death before it ever went live.

I think I did good work on the SFSU program.  Curiously though, no one ever thanked me.  Sometimes, teaching is a thankless job.