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DKU grand opening gives rise to questions on academic freedom

KUNSHAN, China—As part of its grand opening celebration, Duke Kunshan University hosted a series of talks Sunday for local Duke alumni in which DKU and Duke representatives touched upon the issue of academic freedom in China.

DKU is hosting the two-day event for the grand opening of the campus—an event many have awaited, after five significant delays pushed the opening back three years. The first day kicked off with a tour of the campus, which is still a work in progress. Students and faculty are currently living and taking classes in the conference center. The academic center, student dormitories and faculty residence are slated to be complete in the two weeks following the opening, said Bonnie Liu, associate director of career management service for the master of management studies at DKU. The final building, the innovation center, will not be complete for another three years.

Sunday's event kicked off with a discussion on the relationship between Duke and DKU as well as on academic freedom. Since the Board of Trustees opened discussions on building the city-funded campus in 2009, Duke administrators have emphasized that they will not tolerate restrictions to Duke’s academic freedom and taken several steps to affirm their commitment. But government crackdowns on Chinese professors considered to have outspoken views, the banning of various academic topics and China’s generally restrictive internet have caused some to hold their breath.

DKU Chancellor Liu Jingnan touched upon the issue when he discussed the relationship between Duke and DKU in his opening remarks to the alumni.

“Because Duke University is at the very top in the world, as a member of this family, DKU has a responsibility to hold up to that high standard,” Jingnan said through a translator. “Our most important mission is to first carry on the genes of Duke University.”

He noted that the Chinese Ministry of Education has made exceptions to support the “interdisciplinary” mission of DKU and its goal of furthering Duke’s mission of knowledge in the service of society. Such exceptions can be seen by the Chinese Ministry of Education’s choice to approve opening DKU as an international campus offering master’s programs prior to an undergraduate program, which is unconventional, he said. The Chinese Ministry of Education granted final approval to DKU in September 2013, making it the second legally independent American university approved by the Chinese government.

Though Duke administrators originally hoped DKU would be the first such university, delays meant that New York University Shanghai—which offers a four-year undergraduate curriculum—claimed the honor in October 2012.

The choice to open DKU offering only graduate programs—in addition to its undergraduate global learning semester—stemmed from a desire to make DKU a collaborative research institution, Jingnan said. Traditional Chinese educational systems hinge on “producing specialized talents for society” by teaching a specific skill. DKU is unconventional in that it has no majors or departments, he said. Rather, it encourages research across disciplines to address problems China and the rest of the world faces.

“We did a lot of lobbying work to convince educational leaders this is a very good model at DKU,” he said.

University trustee Xiqing Gao, former president of China Investment Corporation and Law ’86, acknowledged issues with China’s restrictive educational system.

“I was so disappointed by the way our kids are still being taught. Many of you share that same frustration,” he said to the largely Chinese crowd of alumni at the event.

Gao added that the ability to commit something to memory is a small part of learning, and DKU is designed to bring forth other opportunities for educational styles.

“We want something to bring out all your pent-up creation and pent-up imagination, but very often our system is [not extensive] and that’s been going on for 2,000 to 5,000 years, and you can’t really change that,” he said.

He called DKU a “great experiment” because it brings a different form of learning.

When asked how he could be sure DKU can guarantee academic freedom, he replied that academic freedom is a “relative concept.”

“Even in the U.S., if you think about it, do you think any Duke law professors would come out and say certain things about religious or sexual orientation? Why? Because society has an overall expectation that you can’t do that,” he said. “These things happen in every country, so it’s a relative term.”

China is no exception to this problem but is much newer to the concept of academic freedom because it functioned on a restrictive path for thousands of years, Gao added. When the Board of Trustees was debating the logistics of DKU, Gao said he would explain to them that “it shouldn’t be too much of a problem,” noting his personal experience of teaching in China for several years and giving open speeches.

“But I know there is a certain line you don’t want to cross, but its not a line of truth versus false—It’s a line of societal norm and cultural acceptance,” he said. “Talk about Taiwan going independent and then maybe you have a problem…. There [is] certain speech we can’t have.”

Despite issues regarding restrictions to speech, Gao said he was never terribly worried about the issue to halt building a campus in China. If anything, DKU offers a means to dealing with this problem, he said.

Gao is not the first Duke representative to speak openly about academic freedom at DKU. Nora Bynum, vice provost of DKU and China initiatives, noted earlier this year that “academic freedom is a perpetual problem in China.” She added that administrators are alert about the issue and are talking with other joint venture universities about the issue.

Following the government crackdown of three Chinese professors for their views, nine elite Chinese universities signed a statement outlining the 10 key components of a research university, including a toleration for competing views and a right for the university to set its own priorities.

Duke has made its own commitments to academic freedom at DKU. In 2011, Duke administrators released a document guaranteeing unrestricted internet and library access. Administrators also outlined stipulations for academic freedom for DKU in The Articles of Association, a public document in China.

While on DKU’s campus under the public “DKU visitor” wifi, this reporter attempted to view multiple websites. Google, Facebook, Twitter, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg News cannot be reached. Bing, Fox News, CNN, the Duke Libraries website, The Chronicle, Wikipedia, ESPN and JSTOR could all be accessed. Although these restrictions to websites do exist, students can invest in a virtual private network software, which allows one to browse the internet—including the aforementioned restricted sites—with ease.


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