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Duke Kunshan University opens its doors to undergraduates

Courtesy of Duke Today
Courtesy of Duke Today

Duke Kunshan University opened its doors to welcome its inaugural class of undergraduate students this past week. 

The DKU Class of 2022 boasts 266 students—175 of whom are from mainland China and 39 of whom hail from the United States. Twenty-two new faculty members were hired to teach the students, in addition to 11 Duke faculty who will teach DKU undergraduate courses this year. The University aims to reach class sizes of 500 students and hire a total of 120 faculty, according to a press release.

DKU graduates would be considered Duke alumni and earn Duke University degrees, as well as a second degree from DKU. 

"The way people begin a project always has outsized impact on how the work continues," former President Richard Brodhead told DKU students in a speech Wednesday. "Starting today, you will help set this school’s character and habits. Make it a place of open, spirited engagement with people and ideas and you will be creating a new thing in higher education—do your homework and keep to yourself and Duke Kunshan will be fine, but not all it could have been."

Duke President Vincent Price was unable to attend the festivities at DKU but welcomed the students with a recorded message. 

“I am particularly proud of the richly diverse and academically accomplished students who will begin their studies at Duke Kunshan this year, the innovative and distinguished faculty and the many people at Duke, Duke Kunshan and around the world who have made this visionary idea a reality,” Price said. 

Brodhead addressed the choice of Kunshan—at a relatively low population of 1.6 million—as the site for DKU, mentioning that it was possible for a famous university "to build the reputation" of a city. He likened his hopes for DKU and Kunshan to Stanford University and Palo Alto, California, which he said was mostly farmland until Stanford was built.

Whereas many colleges in the United States have loose partnerships in China, he explained, few have gone the extra mile to form a joint venture university.

"Duke’s prestige and standing made us a desirable partner, but they also made us cautious," Brodhead said. "The higher the reputation of a major university, the more jealously it guards access to its most priceless commodity—the degrees that bear its name."

Brodhead explained that unlike many other universities expanding into China, Duke began by offering graduate degree programs such as master's programs in global health and medical physics. Only after examining the success of those programs did he set the wheels in motion for an undergraduate program to come to fruition.

DKU's undergraduate program— a partnership between Duke, Wuhan University and the city of Kunshan—was approved in 2016 by the Academic Council and Board of Trustees

"The thing the Trustees understand is that we're not doing this because of the risks," Brodhead said in December 2016. "We're doing this because of the opportunities. I think the opportunity was judged to outweigh the risks." 

The school's 15 majors range from data science and material science/physics to political economy and global cultural studies, according to DKU's website.

DKU also features a common core of three required classes that students will take over their first three years "so that the common experience and development of communication skills extend across time." Students will also be required to "develop conversational fluency" in Mandarin Chinese.

Jeremy Chen


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