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DKU requires clear course

President Richard Brodhead’s recent treatise on Duke Kunshan University, emailed to the Duke community last week, recycles bromides about “global presence” while avoiding serious issues. Although we appreciate the president’s efforts to keep the Duke community informed, his lack of clarity and candor heightens confusion and fuels skepticism about the Kunshan campus.

Brodhead’s long and dense disquisition celebrates the Chinese government’s decision to grant DKU preliminary approval. The note fails to mention, however, that preliminary approval does not allow DKU to recruit students for enrollment. Because DKU might not receive permission to recruit students until the Spring of 2013—when the Chinese government is expected to grant final “establishment” approval after another round of evaluations—Brodhead’s expectation that DKU will “begin operations during the 2013-14 academic year” seems highly unrealistic.

Regardless of when DKU opens, the project’s cost continues to trouble many at Duke, and Brodhead has done little to adequately address this concern. A recent study by Bain and Company suggests that Duke’s expenses have significantly outstripped its revenue. Although the size of Duke’s endowment ensures that Duke can avoid insolvency, the study raises questions about how the University should allocate increasingly scarce resources. Apart from issuing vague assurances about the greatness of the Chinese frontier, the administration has never sufficiently justified DKU, and we question whether a campus in China represents the best use of University funds.

That being said, the city of Kunshan bore the brunt of DKU’s construction costs, and much of Duke’s approximately $40 million contribution came from funds earmarked for the project. A financial trade-off between Kunshan and Durham would be relatively small.

At the very least, the focus on DKU signals a shift in the University’s priorities. Brodhead reserved the academic year’s first mass email for an update on DKU, emphasizing the ill-defined rewards of global expansion over improving quality at home.

Despite concerns about priorities, we laud the University’s commitment to free inquiry at DKU and appreciate Brodhead’s discussion of it in his email. Although students and professors will likely not face threats to academic freedom, it remains unclear whether “free inquiry and free expression” protects political activism or organized protest on campus. Yale University recently faced censure because its campus in Singapore prohibits protests and partisan student groups. Duke’s policy on academic freedom does not discuss political participation, but we suspect China’s tightly-controlled political environment will make political expression difficult, an issue Duke’s administration ought to publicly consider.

Concerns about DKU rarely stem from the belief that the administration has done a poor job implementing the project. More often, they are a reaction to poor communication. For example, DKU’s current web presence, which is merely one paltry section in a “Duke in China” site, could certainly be beefed up. If Brodhead traded platitudes for details and the administration made relevant documents more accessible, students and staff would be better able to engage in a meaningful conversation about Kunshan.

DKU will happen whether we like it or not, but its success will require greater openness on the part of Brodhead and his administration.

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