Duke Kunshan University--A Bold Innovation

When Duke students attended their first classes on Monday, August 25, in Durham, another set of Duke students were doing the same thing more than 7,000 miles away. Nearly five years after it was first introduced to faculty, Duke Kunshan University (DKU) held its first classes this fall in Kunshan, China.

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"Duke Kunshan University is a bold project to drive innovation in Chinese international education," said Liu Jingnan, DKU's designated chancellor, at the opening ceremony, according to a press release. "It represents a real chance to explore new models of higher education in China and sets an example for other Sino-international cooperative schools.”

The satellite campus is meant to prepare students in both durham and Kunshan to work in a “globalized” economy. This goal is in line with Duke University’s Strategic Plan:

“No longer can we prepare our students as if they are likely to pursue careers based in the United States, without much international contact or experience, and with little contact with colleagues from other nations and cultures.”

Duke also wants to enhance its international reputation. According to the Strategic Plan,  DKU will enhance Duke’s research and teaching by attracting talent from overseas. Currently, only 8 percent of Duke’s undergraduate population is from another country, and 23 percent of the university’s graduate and professional students are considered “international.”

This semester, the campus is home to 62 undergraduate students, 42 graduate students in medical physics and global health, 8 permanent faculty members, and a dozen Duke professors. Students from the Master's of Management Studies program at Duke will also travel to Kunshan for classes beginning in January.

The path to the campus's opening has not been simple. The concept of a campus in China was first presented to the Academic Council in November 2009. Pushed by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business as an opportunity to expand abroad, DKU was initially set to open in fall 2011, offering the MMS degree and enhanced programming for the Global Executive MBA.

The University's conversations about the campus grew beyond Fuqua, and in January 2010, Duke entered into an agreement with the city of Kunshan, securing 200 acres for the DKU campus, with the local municipal government signing on to manage and fund construction. In February 2011, Duke signed an agreement with Wuhan University, securing its Chinese partner. In September 2013, the Chinese Ministry of Education granted final approval. Meanwhile, DKU's opening had been pushed back three times due to construction delays caused by poor weather. Even though classes have begun, issues with construction and funding persist, and work on the campus is still in progress.

Duke's strategy in Asia is representative of American colleges' and universities' growing global ambitions -- an innovation that has developed alongside controversy sparked by some institutions' stateside faculty. Duke's proposed 200-acre Kunshan campus was planned even as U.S. faculty spoke out against it, claiming the university's future had been too authoritatively determined by administrators without input from the Duke community.

Back in Durham, several members of the faculty expressed concerns about the project. The question of academic freedom in China came into play, while others wondered whether the campus would dilute the University's brand or divert significant resources away from the Durham campus. One of the most vocal critics has been English Professor Thomas Pfau, who criticized the school’s “Kunshan adventure” for taking resources away from Duke’s core academic functions, such as the English Department.

While in Kunshan, DKU faculty and students are more optimistic. “They are going to have a world-class educational experience that I hope will help them become future leaders in their respective fields”, said Liu in the DKU Convocation Ceremony. “Together, we look forward to pioneering a new model for the future of global higher education.”

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