Bryant University is partners with a major university in China, as well as has its own campus there.
The University of Rhode Island also has a relationship with a Chinese school and is proud of its highly respected Chinese language program.
Both Rhode Island universities say their strength in Chinese studies is directly related to a Chinese government program housed on their campuses called the Confucius Institute.
The Institute brings scholars from China to teach Mandarin language classes. The schools acknowledge they receive hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the Chinese government-backed institutes. The schools have hosted the Confucius Institute for more than 10 years, but now federal officials are sounding an alarm.
"We do share concerns about the Confucius Institutes," Christopher Wray, who is the director of the FBI, told a Senate hearing last week. "We’ve been watching that development for a while.”
Officials worry that the institutes may be cover for intelligence gathering and for spreading propaganda about China.
At URI, President Dr. David Dooley said the propaganda piece doesn’t apply. He said the instructors are general Chinese graduate students and they only teach the language.
"We have no restrictions on what we say what we teach and how we teach it here. As I say, that is entirely decided by our own people," Dooley said of other curricula.
At Bryant, President Ron Machtley said he’s seen no effort to spread propaganda.
"In the 12 years we’ve had a Confucius Institute, I see none," he said. "Certainly, we celebrate their culture, we celebrate their language. We study Mandarin here. But in our school in China, we teach free market economy, we teach it in English. So, it’s no different from what we’re doing in China from what they’re doing to help us to create one of the best Mandarin programs in the country."
The presidents say both their schools are improving relations with China by participating in the program.
"We have to be open, and rely on our students and faculty to hear different ideas," Machtley said. "And we have a school in China. I believe that the future of peacefully negotiating a future with China, who is our economic competitor, will in large part be dependent on us being willing to talk and understand one another."
Dooley shared similar sentiments.
“We have a government right now, an administration that doesn’t appear to value diplomacy very highly," he said. "We think in those circumstances, a public university like the University of Rhode Island can play a critical role."
Neither school intends to change its relationship with the Confucius Institute.