In the five years Denis Simon has been executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan University, he’s overseen the first undergraduate class recruitment, two phases of construction and a faculty that’s grown from 10 to 80.
Simon will step down from that role at DKU June 30. He will assume a new position at Duke as the senior adviser on China to President Vincent Price.
Simon came to DKU from Arizona State University, where he served as senior adviser to the president for China-related strategic initiatives. Throughout his career, he has found pride in studying and writing about innovation, science and technology policy in China.
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, praised Simon’s China expertise and leadership skills as having been invaluable in starting the undergraduate program at DKU.
“First and foremost, he knows how to operate in China, he understands Chinese culture and he understands Chinese politics,” Schoenfeld said. “And he is, I think equally suited to be at the head of this unique joint-venture university in addition to building truly every aspect of the university from the ground up.”
Schoenfeld explained that Simon has been involved in diverse aspects of DKU’s development, ranging from the information systems and computer network, to the curriculum and academic calendar, to food service and student housing.
Simon has been working in and with China for 40 years. He said that experience has been very helpful when it comes to understanding both Chinese and American perspectives.
“I can take off my American glasses and put on my Chinese lens,” he said.
Simon said challenges sometimes arise due to the different cultures and government systems, adding that administrators often need to reconcile differing norms and values to pursue their common goal of “[creating] this world-class, globally oriented liberals arts university.”
Simon often had to stress the importance of liberal arts education, a newer concept in China. He said the humanities and social sciences are valuable to a student’s development.
“If you want to train global citizens for the 21st century, you must have people that are well-rounded creative thinkers. They are also critical thinkers. They don’t take for granted what they’re taught or what they’re told. [They] don’t assume anything to be true unless they’ve digested it, processed it and analyzed it,” Simon said.
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That critical thinking comes into play when students consider current events in China. Simon said part of his role at DKU is to create a space for student dialogue, especially regarding issues that are sensitive in China.
“We can’t be like an ostrich and stick our heads in the sand and make believe that those issues don’t exist,” Simon said.
He has created platforms for students to discuss hot topics in a civil manner. A recent pressing topic, he said, was the protests and violence in Hong Kong.
“As the weeks and months went on, it became more and more sensitive. Many people thought it was going to be over in a couple of weeks. And then it was a couple of months, and then it’s been lingering on,” Simon said. “We had to find a way to allow those interested students to be able to look at this issue.”
When inviting discussions, Simon has had to be careful not to peeve any partners.
2019 presented an increased challenge. It was the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, which made the Chinese leaders particularly careful to avoid embarrassments or events that would make them “lose face,” Simon said.
“We created a mini course on Hong Kong that allowed it to become the subject of discussion, and yet it didn’t turn into an uncontrolled mess. We had to be extremely respectful of the fact that our Chinese counterparts might have preferred us not to have done that,” he explained.
Simon said dialogue was necessary, and he ultimately feels the mini course allowed students to peacefully evaluate the situation.
“We feel that we did something that was appropriate and not in-your-face. We always, always, always carry the principle [of] ‘don’t stick your finger in the eye of your counterpart unnecessarily’,” he said.
Ushering in the undergrads
Simon said that his proudest accomplishment at DKU has been recruiting the first undergraduate class and seeing the program come to fruition. He was unsure whether the school could attract enough high caliber students. DKU aims to obtain a “diverse and talented” class of students, with 60-70% hailing from China and 30-40% from elsewhere.
DKU had a director of admissions, but didn’t have a dean of enrollment. Simon said he himself drove recruitment efforts.
James Dobbins, associate vice provost and director of the office of DKU programs, described Simon as a “very active person and an initiative taker,” adding that he had the tremendous energy necessary to welcome the first class.
Overall, Simon said recruiting students came down to passion and good analytics. The hardest part, Simon said, was convincing parents and students that graduates would receive an authentic, well-respected Duke degree.
“We were an unknown quantity. We were a name on a piece of paper. We had to convince students that DKU was real, and that you really would get a Duke degree,” he said.
“We put together a fantastic entering class where we met our targets for Chinese students, and we surpassed our targets for international students. That was a very bubbly, exciting moment for everyone,” he said.
Simon believes that DKU is one of the most important joint ventures between China and the United States. For him, it “indicates whether or not the two countries can really work together.” But he doesn’t deny that it has been a challenge.
“Five years of working at this job is very intense and sometimes very stressful,” he said.
Simon said a typical day for him includes group and individual meetings with the 22 administrators that report to him. Those administrators—vice chancellors or directors—oversee everything from academic affairs to building construction to student activities.
“All of this is designed to make sure that we constantly have our finger on the pulse of the external environment, and also what is going on at DKU,” Simon said.
After stepping down as the DKU executive vice chancellor, Simon will become a senior adviser to Price. He hopes to work with deans and faculty members to create new China-related opportunities. This may look like faculty exchanges, more research collaboration or joint projects.
“There are a lot of areas of interest on the Duke campus that match very well with Chinese areas of interest: healthcare, aging, environment, innovation, et cetera,” he said.
Schoenfeld expects Simon to play a vital role when he comes back to the United States thanks to his China expertise.
Though Simon will soon be based in the United States, he will still have a role in China. The government has asked him to help devise its 15-year science and technology plan, advising officials about trends in research and development.
Searching for a new EVC
Professor of Political Science Edmund Malesky—a specialist on Southeast Asia—is leading a search committee to advise Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth and the DKU Board of Trustees regarding a new executive vice chancellor.
Schoenfeld, a member of the committee, said the process for finding DKU administrators is slightly different than for Duke administrators.
“The committee and the university and DKU are searching for somebody who has strong knowledge of China, strong commitment to quality and excellence in a university and strong experience in leading a very complex organization,” he said. “There is an international search firm that is assisting with it.”
Schoenfeld said that although Simon’s knowledge of Chinese culture and politics will be hard to match, he is optimistic that the search will yield another strong candidate.
“This is really quite a symphony, and Dennis has been just an excellent conductor of this symphony,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Simon would assist DKU administrators with devising its science and technology plan, when he will actually be advising the Chinese government. The Chronicle regrets the error.