KUNSHAN, China—"What are you going to Kunshan for?" My dad asked incredulously.

Having lived in Shanghai for 19 years—just an hour's drive away from Kunshan—I never once thought of visiting the tiny city known to me for its Aozao noodle, which literally means "foul noodle," and nothing else. But since Duke will (finally) be opening a campus there, I drove to Kunshan to find out why this seemingly unattractive city attracted Duke administrators.

As high-rises gradually faded out of sight, the hope of witnessing another version of the Gothic wonderland kept my drive out of the metropolis thrilling. The promised wonderland, however, was still enclosed in temporary walls and covered with sand. In spite of the ongoing construction, the all-glass buildings and soon-to-be-filled "water quads" of DKU blend with the tranquility of Kunshan perfectly. The campus is not Gothic, but it is certainly very Chinese.

A panoramic view of the back of DKU's academic building and its signature water pavilions.

Creating DKU has not been a graceful process. Poor management and insufficient funding caused five significant delays since President Richard Brodhead signed an agreement with the municipal government of Kunshan to break ground on the new campus in 2010. Having slowed to almost a complete stop in 2012, Duke administrators were hopeful that two of DKU's six buildings would be complete by Spring 2014. DKU will open Aug. 25, however, with only one building finished.

As a partnership between Duke and Wuhan University in China, Duke Kunshan University will officially open with three graduate programs in medical physics, management studies and global health and an undergraduate global learning semester program.

Although DKU has been characterized by its delayed construction, I set out to learn about the city of Kunshan itself.

Located in the Kunshan Science and Technology Education Park in close proximity to both Shanghai and Suzhou, DKU’s site has initially raised many doubts.

“When DKU first started there were questions about, ‘What is Kunshan?’ and people say that there is nothing to do here,” said DKU Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Bullock. “In a conference call while I stayed at a hotel in downtown Kunshan, I had to interrupt them and say, 'Well, I am looking at a Starbucks from my window, and there is a huge group of people dancing, a KFC underneath me, a Carrefour and Durham does not have that.'”

In the eyes of local Chinese, Kunshan as a county-level city is known as the origin of Kunqu, one of China’s oldest extant theater arts. It is also known for its food culture and its surrounding water towns that attract thousands of tourists. Economically, Kunshan is also regarded as one of the most successful county-level cities in China.

“It is in China’s most prosperous region with all the networks,” Bullock said, adding that it is only 15 minutes away from Shanghai by train. “In another couple of years people are going to start realizing that it is as easy to go from DKU to a meeting in Shanghai as it is to go there from some other places within Shanghai itself.”

The campus is neighbored only by a Canadian International School still under construction and green areas. Bullock noted that that Kunshan has started building a small shopping center behind the campus, hiring a renowned developer that developed Shanghai Xintiandi, an affluent car-free shopping and entertainment district. The city has also made a commitment to increase bus routes into Kunshan, she added.

As of now, there is no place within walking distance of the campus where students can have fun, and downtown Kunshan is about a 10-minute drive away. Although a high-speed train ride to Shanghai sounds convenient and tempting, transportation from DKU to the train station is currently non-existent without a car, as buses scarcely run through the area.

“The huge advantage is that the Kunshan city believes in us. We are their big project and we really have the backing of a wealthy and progressive city,” Bullock said. “Some people asked whether Kunshan is going to do what it says it is going to do, and so far we are seeing yes.”

Constructing a uniquely Duke campus

The master plan of the DKU campus includes five buildings—a conference building, a service building, an academic building, a student dormitory and a faculty residence hall. An innovation building that will house teaching labs and research spaces will be added to the campus in late 2014 or early 2015. The campus will open with students and faculty using the conference center and other buildings will be phased in gradually when they are completed in September and October, Bullock said.

Construction has been a slow process because the Duke oversight team did not find Kunshan's construction standards to their liking. Duke Project Manager Dudley Willis is on site to monitor safety issues during construction and noted that Duke insists on high construction quality that Chinese workers might not be familiar with.

One of DKU's most unique facets is its "water quads," which draws on traditional Chinese water towns.

Blending with the geographical location of Kunshan amidst traditional Chinese water towns, one distinctive feature of the new campus is the presence of lakes and a water pavilion with three gathering rooms all made of glass, heated and cooled by the water.

“As you go around here [in Kunshan] you see a lot of lakes and canals, and we bring that here into the campus.” Bullock said. “Instead of grass quads we have lakes.”

Enrolling the first class at DKU

DKU's is still accepting applications for its graduate programs and the undergraduate semester program after extending deadlines from their original March date. Bullock did not disclose the exact number of students enrolled at DKU because students may decide to go elsewhere even though they put down a deposit at DKU.

“We are still receiving applications,” Bullock said. “We are going to announce the number of students enrolled the day we open.”

Bullock estimated that so far approximately 100 students have enrolled, with a large number of students admitted for the undergraduate semester program. The student body consists of Chinese students from 12 to 15 universities as well as students from the United States and other countries.

“There will be more Chinese students than international students but there is a good mix,” Bullock said. “The basic thing is that we are only admitting highly selective students, so that is the determining factor.”

The Graduate School oversees two of the master’s degrees offered at DKU—a master’s in global health and a master’s in medical physics. The Fuqua School of Business oversees the master’s program in management studies, said Dean of the Graduate School Paula McClain.

Administrators expect to have 15 to 20 students per graduate program in the first semester and said they were pleased with the results of the first cycle of recruiting.

“We want programs that not only represent Duke’s interests but also make sense in China,” Bullock said, adding that the program in medical physics, which initially surprised many because it is a highly specialized field, is needed in China due to the increasing demand for scholars who understand high-end medical equipment.

As to future expansion of the graduate programs, Bullock noted that DKU is looking particularly at the environmental field and is currently hosting an environmental group at Duke to hear recommendations for a future master’s program in environment and energy.

For the undergraduate semester program, DKU has so far established partnerships with 17 universities in China for its undergraduate semester program, said Wyatt Bruton, international undergraduate recruiting coordinator for DKU.

“That was one of the greatest accomplishments of this year,” Bullock said. “One of our big efforts was to visit China’s major universities to introduce all DKU programs so that they are recognized and students will be nominated to come."

DKU is committed to the undergraduate semester program as a way to learn about how to implement a liberal arts curriculum in China and get faculty experienced in teaching an international student body.

Bullock added that there are many things to consider at the start of a new university—what is the type of relevant curriculum, what kind of students one wants to have in the program and what would be distinctive about the program because China has a lot of universities. With these concerns in mind, Duke envisions DKU to be both experimental and incremental in its growth.

The future of academic freedom in China

In 2013, Chinese leadership announced seven banned topics from university classrooms. These topics include freedom of press, failures of the Communist Party, judicial independence and wealth of government leaders. Additionally, three Chinese professors got into trouble with the government because of their outspoken views. Duke administrators denied being informed of the ban.

When asked whether there might be changes made to the Duke curriculum due to pressure from a controlled academic environment in China, Bullock said, “Not on my watch.”

Other administrators are confident about the prospect of academic freedom at DKU.

"We have been assured by our partners and the ministries that our faculty can teach what they want and our students can learn what they want," said Bill Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business.

McClain declined to comment on the topic of academic freedom.

The academic standards and expectations to which DKU will be held are made clear in the university’s governing documents, said Nora Bynum, vice provost for DKU.

Bullock also noted that Duke has been very clear for years with the Chinese government that it would not begin an academic program unless there is academic freedom. Each curriculum is chosen by Duke faculty, not by the Ministry of Education in China.

“China is an interesting place,” she said. “It is the right moment to be here because there is a lot of experimentation going on in China’s own higher education. They are looking for reform and they are looking for models. They treat DKU as a new model, so it is a great way for us to demonstrate academic freedom.”