The DKU campus is still a work in progress, but administrators say they are pleased with the university's first days and looking forward to the semester.
The DKU campus is still a work in progress, but administrators say they are pleased with the university's first days and looking forward to the semester.

When students attend their first classes in Durham on Monday, another set of Duke students will be doing the same thing more than 7,000 miles away.

Nearly five years after it was first introduced to faculty—and three years after its initial planned opening—Duke Kunshan University will hold its first classes Monday. Orientation for undergraduate and graduate students began with a Convocation ceremony Aug. 20, and faculty and staff are currently settling in to the new campus.

The path to the campus's opening has not been simple—with faculty resistance and construction delays, among other issues. The campus is still a work in progress, but administrators say they are pleased with DKU's first days and looking forward to the semester.

"The journey hasn't been easy," Lingling Wang, assistant registrar and enrollment manager, wrote in an email Thursday. "We have a strong and collaborative team here at DKU and I believe it will become a truly world class university."

Classes are being held in the school's conference center—the only building currently completed on the campus. Students are being housed in a nearby hotel as construction continues on five other campus buildings. Four of the five will be completed in the coming weeks, administrators say.

"The atmosphere here in Kunshan is very positive," Nora Bynum, vice provost for DKU and China initiatives, wrote in an email Thursday. "The students are an amazing mix of talents and aspirations for their time here—in my interactions with them they often mention the small class size, the variety of topics across the natural and social sciences and the humanities, the presence of senior faculty from Duke and the opportunity to learn from their peers."

The campus is currently home to a semester-long undergraduate program in addition to graduate programs in medical physics and global health.

DKU will also be home to a Master's of Management Studies program, though students are currently in Durham. They will travel to Kunshan for classes beginning in January.

When DKU was announced, many expected it to be the first legally independent American university approved by the Chinese government. But construction delays and management issues meant that the title went instead to New York University's Shanghai campus, which opened Fall 2013.

The concept of a campus in China was first presented to Academic Council in November 2009. Pushed by Fuqua 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. President Richard Brodhead traveled to Kunshan that month to announce an academic partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which is consistently ranked as one of the top five universities in China. Crews broke ground on construction that September, with administrators saying they expected the campus to be finished in time to welcome students in Fall 2012.

But issues began to surface with the SJTU partnership, and by Fall 2010, Duke was looking for a new Chinese partner.

Back in Durham, meanwhile, 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.

In February 2011, Duke signed an agreement with Wuhan University. With a partner secured, Duke began pursuing government approval for the campus. But that Fall, administrators announced that DKU's opening had been pushed back to Spring 2013 due to construction delays from poor weather. Issues with construction and funding persisted, and work on the campus came to a near stop in 2012.

In September 2012, Duke administrators maintained that the campus would open in time for the following school year, with five of the DKU's six buildings set for completion in July 2013. But a few months later, the opening date was pushed back once again—this time to Fall 2014, when five of the six buildings would be complete.

"From [the Ministry of Education] application to campus construction, each task is a challenging one and wouldn't have been done without so many people's hard effort and deep belief in this project," Wang wrote.

Although construction is not finished and DKU continues to hire staff, the doors have opened and classes are set to begin—moving into the next stage of the campus's journey.

"After so much work over so much time by so many people here at DKU and at Duke University, it was gratifying to see faculty students and staff united in celebrating the opening of DKU," Bynum wrote of the Convocation.