UCD's Confucius Institute. Google Streetview
Ben Tonra

Professor resigns from managerial role over UCD's 'pathetic' statement on Ukraine invasion

Professor Ben Tonra said UCD issued a “mealy-mouthed” statement because of its relationship with China.

A UCD PROFESSOR has resigned with immediate effect from a part-time managerial role at the Dublin university over its statement about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Professor of International Relations Ben Tonra told The Journal that University College Dublin’s statement was “pathetic” and “mealy-mouthed”, and that it contrasted strongly with the responses of other universities to the invasion of Ukraine. 

In recent days, the Provost of Trinity College Linda Doyle said that she was “utterly appalled” at the “brutal invasion” of Ukraine; Dublin City University President Daire Keogh said DCU condemned the “unjustifiable aggression” against Ukraine; while UCC condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and said students and staff would gather today at 5pm to show its support.

UCD released a statement last night which said that it “joins the Irish Government and wider society in its concern with the situation in Ukraine, and in particular with the violation of international law and the unnecessary and tragic human suffering and loss of life”.

Last night, Tonra tweeted his surprise at the phrase “the situation in Ukraine”, and said he was “deeply, profoundly ashamed”.

He announced today on Twitter that he would resign from his role as the Vice Principal for Internationalisation and Global Engagement at the UCD College of Social Sciences and Law, but would remain a full professor of international relations.

Speaking to The Journal today, Tonra said that UCD’s response was “pathetic”.

“If you compare and contrast the statements of Trinity, DCU and UCC, there’s clear blue water between their statements and UCD’s. It’s an extraordinary weak and mealy-mouthed statement.

The reason for that weakness is because if the university issued a stronger statement, they’re anxious it might come back to bite them in relation to the Confucius Institute and Chinese studies.

Commentators have said China will be watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine closely, as it may influence what it does in relation to Taiwan. It could embolden China to invade Taiwan, for example, which it has long claimed as its own and used its armed forces to intimidate, or it may be wary of invading due to the strength of the sanctions directed at Russia. 

“That links the two together,” Tonra said of the Ukrainian invasion and UCD’s Confucius Institute.

China’s Confucius Institutes aim to increase ties between countries and China by allowing students in different countries to learn the Chinese language and culture – UCD’s was established in 2006. They have been criticised as serving an ulterior motive for the one-party Chinese state as “soft power projection through education”, as well as other academic concerns.

UCC has had a Confucius Institute since 2007; in 2019, NUI Galway signed an agreement to establish a Confucius Institute for Chinese and Regenerative Medicine.

Tonra said that the search for funding for third-level institutions is leading to morals and values of academic institutions being compromised.

The pursuit of overseas funding and overseas partnerships is why a great university like UCD would leave its values to the side. All Irish universities are underfunded, meaning managers are having to turn everything into an income stream: students and partners become an income stream.

He said that UCD initially issued a statement of concern for “students who are affected” by the invasion of Ukraine, but said that “when they were pushed to say more about it, they gave the statement we saw.”

The UCD Student’s Union President Ruairí Power said in a statement that UCD’s statement on Ukraine was “soft” in comparison to other third-level institutions, and that describing “a full-scale invasion as a ‘situation’ was particularly misguided”.

When it was raised that there have been other conflicts around the world that have not prompted statements of condemnation from universities, Tonra said “I could have a conversation with you for two hours about why that is the case.”

“It’s the geographic proximity [of the Ukraine invasion], the scale, the immediacy, and the egregious nature of it: a nuclear superpower is invading a neighbouring country because it doesn’t like its government.” 

He said that no one is expecting universities to become political commentators on global events, but that this was particularly “egregious” and “blatantly black and white”.

“There really isn’t any other complexity,” he said. 

Tonra acknowledged that he is in an “incredibly privileged position” that he is able to resign from “a part-time management role” that he took up two years ago to support UCD’s global strategy, and that he still has a full-time position at the university.

“It’s not insubstantial” either, he added. “A small amount of money” given to replace his teaching hours may need to be refunded, but that has yet to be worked out.

“There are fantastic people who work in UCD Global for the students, but the university as a whole needs to reflect where we are. I would like a conversation on why we’re on this path. 

“I think there needs to be a conversation about it. My colleagues here are fantastic, but it is the relationship with the Chinese government which is hugely problematic, in principal and in practice.”

UCD has been contacted for comment. 

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