DKU poised for a pyrrhic victoryDuke Kunshan University cannot catch a break. In addition to grappling with delays, complications and backlash from students and faculty, administrators at the beleaguered university have now extended the application deadline for several programs.
They have done so presumably because DKU has not yet met its application targets. Although a belated stamp of approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education shortened this year's recruiting season, low application rates for DKU not only presage a difficult few years for the university, but also exemplify the repeated failure of administrators to predict accurately how the project will unfold.
This is, however, DKU's first year accepting applications. Not only are complications bound to arise, but the data set is also too small to determine whether or not the size and quality of this year's applicant pool accurately reflect the student demand for DKU's programs.
Attracting applicants in China is notoriously difficult. China is bursting with colleges—many of them cheap, if low-quality—and, in order to attract bright students, DKU's administrators will have to prove that DKU offers excellent academic programs and that the quality of those programs justifies a price tag that is higher than that of many colleges in China. DKU has not produced any graduates. As a result, it has neither proven its value nor earned a reputation that might attract potential applicants.
Duke also lacks the brand recognition enjoyed by some American colleges with ventures in China. Increasing brand recognition requires better marketing and recruiting efforts. But, even if DKU were to launch a highly successful marketing campaign, it is not clear that the university could quickly or completely overcome the reputational and financial hurdles that are likely deterring applicants.
DKU should, however, provide more information about its programs to students at Duke. Increasing communication about the status of DKU, the courses it offers and its application process promises to generate community buy-in on a campus generally chary of DKU. It would also satisfy the administration's obligation to keep stakeholders informed about the project.
External factors largely contributed to the decision to extend DKU's application deadline. But it is also possible that administrators simply underestimated the demand for a Duke-affiliated university in China. The administration has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to foresee DKU's many complications, and, time and time again, administrators have been willing to weather short-term setbacks in order to complete the project. Job-like in their determination, Duke's administrators have approached every obstacle with a dogged commitment to success, almost at all costs.
But what is the long-term benefit of having an affiliate in China?
The answer is not entirely clear. With every setback, the grand opening of DKU is looking more and more like a pyrrhic victory—an accomplishment that has sucked away more resources and reputational capital than it is likely to pay back in educational or financial returns. Many students, faculty and alumni continue to have concerns about the venture, and we maintain that DKU's problems—especially those surrounding academic freedom—seem to outweigh any benefits it might bring.
Despite our reservations, we hope that DKU succeeds. To that end, we encourage administrators not just to educate the Duke community about the project, but also to listen to their concerns.