When Duke announced the construction of Duke Kunshan University in the Jiangsu province of China in 2010, our University community was left with many unanswered questions. Some of these questions include: How would faculty be mobilized, how sustainable would the research be, if the program is targeted toward English speaking Chinese students, would there be enough incentive for Chinese students to pay Duke tuition without the benefits of living abroad, would Chinese students pay Duke tuition given the much lower cost of attendance at Chinese universities and what sort of intellectual freedom could Duke students and faculty exercise? Now it’s October 2013, and the Duke in China reference sheet, which was last updated in 2012, said the campus would open in the 2013-2014 school year pending the approval of the Chinese government. Yet, we are still without answers.
Since Duke made its decision to go global, it has seen Shanghai Jiao Tong University back out of a yearlong agreement and has forged a new partnership with Wuhan University in Kushan. It has faced faculty criticism and construction delays, all while our peer institutions with active global campuses are increasingly condemned, and faculty members at other Chinese universities are fired for speaking out against the government. Yet, the University celebrates as blue and white DKU balloons line the Bryan Center Plaza and t-shirts are distributed to laud the Chinese government’s approval—DKU will officially begin enrolling students in the Fall of 2014. And amidst all of the criticism, all of the wariness and tepid support, amidst Duke’s own financial woes, we approach the opening of DKU with the questions asked in 2010 remaining largely unanswered. The most pressing question among them: What sort of Duke is Duke Kunshan University? A post from the official Duke Kunshan blog suggests the roots are clear, citing photos and banners posted throughout the university as “reminders” of the Durham campus. At this point, for an average student, that is the only clear connection I have seen between Duke in Durham and Duke in Kunshan. I only wish I could tell you that there are more than superficial details connecting the two campuses; however, as we inch closer to the start of the next academic year, these questions and roadblocks only seem to be compounding.
There are over 80 universities with global campuses abroad, which may clue us into the PR motivation Duke had when making its decision on DKU. But not all other top universities are following suit. Ezekiel Emmanuel, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania stated, “We are fundamentally a knowledge institution, we are not fundamentally a real estate institution. In this day and age," Emmanuel continued, "the idea that you are going to double down on real estate seems a little nutty.” Emmanuel raises a valid point of whether or not Duke considers itself a “knowledge institution.” Of course the benefits of globalization include collaboration in academic research and intellectual partnership. But it also means censorship laws and using money for construction costs rather than research.
Many voices on campus have petitioned our administration for answers on academic freedom and the undue financial burden, but it is time to shed light on the issue of working rights. There are certain standards our University upholds. Among the most admirable is providing a living wage to all of its staff and workers in Durham. Will this value travel to Kunshan along with the Blue Devil logos and photos of the Duke Chapel? Upon asking the Office of Global Strategy what the benefits will be for maintenance workers and janitorial staff for the Kunshan campus, I was given the answer that a certain amount of human resources information will be posted on the University’s website, but not until closer to the time of opening. I can only assume, given the considerable number of staff members in Kunshan and the rapidly approaching opening date, that these decisions have already been made, so what would the motivation be for the delay in disclosure? I want to know if the campus I’m so skeptical of was built by people who were afforded the same working conditions as those working in Durham. If I, as a student at Duke University, have access to know what benefits the employees have on my campus in Durham, why is there any hesitation in telling me the working conditions on my satellite campus? Perhaps Duke is mitigating the cost of construction delays by milking the cheap labor that is available to them in Kunshan. Until we have answers, we are only left to speculate.
In addition to protecting the rights of workers in Durham, Duke has a history of protecting the rights of workers abroad. Duke has had a code of conduct since 1997 detailing the conditions factories that manufacture Duke apparel must meet, and, with the recent Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, Duke now requires all factories licensed to produce Duke-logo merchandise in Bangladesh to sign and follow the Accord on Fire and Building Safety. And although, the recent narrative on working conditions has been positive, Duke’s track record isn’t perfect. Linda Schlabach, a campus housekeeping supervisor who had been suspended for harassment and discrimination based on local and national origin, was recently reinstated. Luckily, Duke employees belong to the Local 77 private worker’s union, which can serve as a protective force (although, a far from perfect one) in these manners. Where will Kunshan workers who face similar discrimination be able to turn? As a worker in China, you either have access to the All-China Federation of Trade Union, a government organization whose legitimacy is questioned by many international organizations, or a union organized by your employer. Neither would apply to locally employed DKU staff because organization for better union representation comes largely from factory workers, making the infrastructure for a union for service employees in China nonexistent, despite the fact that the service industry composes 36 percent of the labor market in China. China has a minimum wage that was established in 1994, but has been largely outpaced by inflation. This is the context DKU is operating within, and, considering the roadblocks it has faced, it is well-positioned to benefit from these scanty labor requirements. In Durham, Duke does not merely adhere to the minimum working conditions established by the government, but it instead makes an effort to provide additional benefits and living wages. If this is an ideal Duke is committed to, it has the obligation to provide these benefits in China.
Duke, it is already too late. You have already made the decision on what the pay scale and benefits will be for employees in Kunshan. We are just left waiting for the day when the few “human resources” details are posted on the DKU website. While your students and faculty felt like they were left out of the entire decision making process, while you have averted our questions, students have begun the application process. DKU is happening whether we like it or not. Prove us wrong, Duke. Prove to us that the values of our University are not being compromised. We demand answers.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.