Duke Kunshan University is seeking to move past its growing pains and introduce more programs during its second year.
DKU is now home to about 100 students—half of whom are graduate students pursuing one of the three master’s programs. The other half are undergraduate students from China, Korea, India and the U.S. participating in a semester-long study abroad program. DKU has been under scrutiny for the slow progress of construction projects on campus and its relatively isolated location within China. Construction on five of six planned buildings is now finished, however, and administrators are eager to show that DKU is succeeding.
“You have to recognize that there is a process of development. We knew from the early on that some aspects will be fast, some will be slow,” said Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor of DKU. “But for the most part students are feeling much more upbeat and positive about living and studying at DKU.”
Simon noted that the University is working to keep students engaged in the city of Kunshan by offering a shuttle bus to the downtown district. In addition, the city government is planning on building a commercial center to serve the area.
“The city government came to survey our students about their preferences for food and shopping,” he said. “This is very good indication that they see us as a very important partner in the development of the entire zone.”
Duke professors who have taught at DKU praised the campus dynamics and student body.
Wayne Norman, Mike and Ruth Mackowski Professor of ethics who taught at DKU last Spring, said he was impressed by the Chinese students in his class and the progress they made during the seven-week session.
“For a lot of them, it’s their first encounter with the western liberal-arts model,” he said. “They were very smart, and there is no significant difference that I saw between them and international students at Duke in terms of academic capacity.”
Norman also noted that the Internet access available on campus enables students to examine and discuss issues.
“Through the Duke [Virtual Private Network], they have unrestricted access to all the websites that are inaccessible in China, and there were some interesting discussions that evolved from there,” he explained.
In the past, many have raised concerns about academic freedom at DKU due to the restricted atmosphere in China. Simon argued that the agreements signed by DKU and the Chinese government clearly ensure the academic freedom of the University. He said that so far there have been no incidences or reports of academic freedom being violated or constrained.
“We have held classes in which we talked about fairly sensitive subjects in the Chinese context, and no one has come by to slap our head,” he noted.
Simon added that the relationship between the Chinese government and DKU is positive. He explained that DKU interacts with and reports to three levels of Chinese government: the Kunshan city government, the education department of Jiangsu province and the Ministry of Education.
“So far we have not found that there is an excessive bureaucratic burden. The Chinese system is constantly seeking information about what’s going on in DKU because it’s a very important experiment,” Simon said.
DKU’s future plans include the development of an undergraduate program and other master’s programs as well as further brand-building in China.
The planned undergraduate program in DKU was discussed in an Academic Council meeting this September, and an additional master’s program in environmental policy was approved by the Academic Council in November and the Board of Trustees this weekend.
The undergraduate program currently under review will offer a liberal-arts curriculum and have concentrations instead of majors, Simon said. He added that DKU will listen to everyone who has a opinion to ensure the quality of the programs.
“Anything that we do in Kunshan is only going to be of the same quality and stature of what we do at Duke,” he said. “There is no ‘Duke-B’ or ‘Duke Light.’ It’s either Duke, or we failed.”
Simon also explained that future brand-building of DKU in China will use the term “Duke Kunshan” instead of “DKU” so that people will know that the school is supposed to be an extension of Duke University.
He said that some challenges DKU faces include getting more Duke faculty and students to teach and study at the University.
Mark Ulett, a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program who taught a writing class at DKU last Spring, encouraged both Duke faculty and students to explore what DKU has to offer.
Although leaving to teach for seven weeks might be a little bit long for some faculty, he noted that he learned a lot during his time at DKU and believes that the students can also benefit from studying there.
“There is something very unique about DKU, the energy there is incomparable,” he said. “It’s an exciting place to be. If given the chance, I’d go back in a heartbeat.”