Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell heads to China today for a seven-day trip to meet with Chinese government and education ministry officials to explore ways to increase the outreach of WKU’s new Confucius Institute.

Ransdell and his Chinese adviser and interpreter, chemistry professor Wei-Ping Pan, director of the Institute for Combustion Science and Environmental Technology at WKU, will meet with representatives of Hanban, the executive body of the Chinese Language Council International - an arm of China’s Ministry of Education - and founder of the Confucius Institute program, in Beijing at its annual meeting.

The trip is the first of what Ransdell said will be an annual journey to network with education leaders from 300 universities across the world with established Confucius Institutes. The two will also explore content options for a new China Exploratorium at WKU, a 4,000-square-foot interactive exhibit set to open May 20.

Pan said he will also make a formal proposal to increase the number of teachers that the Confucius Institute supplies to area schools from 11 to at least 20 and possibly 30 for the next school year.

Ransdell said he wants to look at options to expand the Confucius Institute throughout Kentucky and the state’s community college system.

“I am going with a wide-open pad of paper and an open mind to learn and ask as many questions as I can so that we can make the most of our opportunity to create a strong Confucius Institute here that brings the Chinese art, music, language and culture, not only into our community, but across Kentucky,” Ransdell said.

The role of the Confucius Institute is to help facilitate the learning of the Chinese language both in the public schools and at WKU, but also to help the broader public have a better appreciation of the Chinese language and culture, according to Ransdell.

The Confucius Institute is a nonprofit public institute that promotes Chinese language and culture and supports Chinese teaching internationally through affiliated Confucius Institutes, including 38 higher education institutions in the United States.

WKU’s Confucius Institute, established in March, brought Chinese language courses to local schools for the first time this fall. The vision, according to area educators, is to help area students become more competitive in the global economy.

WKU is beginning to put a short- and long-range plan together for the expansion of its Confucius Institute.

“Our first initiative was to get the language teachers into the schools,” Ransdell said. “We are off to a good start in that regard and we want to expand that program into the community and to the technical college system in Kentucky.”

Hanban provides start-up money for the programs and has aggressive growth plans to bring more Confucius Institutes to the United States, Pan said.

China established its first Confucius Institute abroad at the end of 2004. By June 2009, 282 Confucius Institutes and 272 Confucius Classrooms had been established in 88 countries, according to Pan. The growth has been so rapid, he said, because of the demand to learn Chinese.

“The main mission of Hanban, based on the bylaws, is for promoting Chinese language and cultural exchange,” Pan said. “So many people want to learn Chinese language, therefore the Hanban (is establishing) the Chinese language standard with standard tests. That is another of their missions.”

While the Confucius Institute says its purpose is to enhance the world’s understanding of Chinese language and culture and to promote cultural diversity, some critics view the institutes as mostly a vehicle for propaganda to soften China’s image as an aggressor as it grows stronger economically and politically.

Both Pan and Ransdell are familiar with the criticism, but say they have seen no evidence of it.

“At this early juncture, there has been no attempt to affect curriculum or research or anything like that outside of the fact that they do have an expectation for Chinese language instruction, which we want to do anyway,” Ransdell said. “We are advertising for faculty members in our department of modern languages currently to develop and grow a Chinese language major, so right now our goals and their goals are completely compatible. I don’t see anything that would raise a caution flag.”

Ransdell said he salutes the initiative behind the Confucius Institutes.

“This is about as pervasive a global outreach from a nation’s government that I have observed from any nation on the globe in terms of a national outreach,” he said. “And they are funding these programs and investing handsomely in a strategy to help the world better understand the Chinese history, language and culture. It seems to me the obvious outcome of that is better trade.”

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