A policy directive sent by the U.S. Department of State to universities that sponsor Confucius Institutes suggests that the language and cultural centers that are a key piece of the Chinese government's diplomatic outreach will have to change how they operate or fall afoul of American visa laws.

The memorandum, dated May 17, states that any academics at university-based institutes who are teaching at the elementary- and secondary-school levels are violating the terms of their visas and must leave at the end of this academic year, in June. And it says that, after a "preliminary review," the State Department has determined that the institutes must obtain American accreditation in order to continue to accept foreign scholars and professors as teachers.

It's unclear what prompted the State Department to issue such a policy statement, which is signed by Robin J. Lerner, deputy assistant secretary for private-sector exchange. After all, Confucius Institutes have been on American campuses for nearly a decade.

About 60 universities in the United States now host the centers, which are also in more than 60 other countries. (One state, Washington, and one American city, Chicago, also host Confucius Institutes.) The Chinese government typically pays to start the centers and for a portion of their continuing costs, as a diplomacy effort.

If the teaching activities of the university-based Confucius Institutes were to be curtailed, that could have implications for U.S.-China relations. At the very least, it appears the institutes would have to significantly change how they operate.

In addition to teaching Mandarin, many of the institutes offer classes and conduct research in specific areas, like traditional Chinese medicine or Chinese art and design. Often, they also provide language instruction and Chinese cultural programs for the public in school settings.

Critics of the centers have called them propaganda vehicles for the Chinese government. But it's far from certain what led to the current policy directive by the State Department, particularly as the two countries have recently emphasized the importance of academic and cultural exchange, through efforts like the 100,000 Strong Initiative, an Obama-administration pledge to double the number of Americans studying in China.

For its part, the Chinese government has touted the Confucius Institutes as a sign of China's commitment to improving cultural relations with other countries.

The policy memo focuses on rules related to J-1 visas, which are given to people participating in work- and study-based exchange programs. It notes that while visitors can come as "teachers" or "professors/research scholars," foreign professors, academics, and students at the university level are prohibited from teaching in public or private schools at the precollege level.

Many of the Confucius Institutes currently do just that, through their language and cultural programs for students and the public. The instructors typically come from partner universities in China, and, in many school districts, have become the bedrock of Chinese-language programs.

According to the State Department letter, any current visa holders on the college level who are schoolteachers will be allowed to complete the academic year, but no extensions will be granted. They will have to return to China, where they can apply for another visa under the appropriate category. Visiting scholars who do not have instructional duties would not be affected by the directive.

Officials at universities with Confucius Institutes called the policy statement "surprising" and "unusual" and said they were still sifting through how to respond. One solution might be to refocus the work of the centers, while another might be to shift administrative responsibility for the institutes away from colleges. If they were hosted by school districts or state governments, the visa prohibitions would not apply.

There is a tradition of stand-alone language and cultural centers abroad, such as the German Goethe Institutes or the Alliance Française, although they are not financed and managed by a foreign government to the same degree as Confucius Institutes.

"We are still considering our options," said Jeffrey M. Riedinger, dean of international studies and programs at Michigan State University.

Less clear is the path that the institutes will take to accreditation. The memorandum notes that Chinese courses must be part of the curriculum at an accredited postsecondary institution in order for a professor on a J-1 visa to teach. The letter suggests that the State Department does not believe Confucius Institutes are covered by the institutional accreditation of their sponsoring university.

"Confucius Institutes, therefore, must apply for U.S. accreditation in order to offer teaching opportunities at the Institute or other colleges/universities in which a J-1 professor could participate," it concludes.

The memo, however, does not spell out how the centers would be accredited or offer a time frame for accreditation. Stand-alone and university-based language programs can be accredited through the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training or the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, but the process of earning such approval can take a year or more.