Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.
Denis Simon, who stepped down June 30 from his role as Duke Kunshan University's executive vice chancellor, came to DKU in August 2015 and has been intimately involved in all aspects of the venture. As DKU’s principal academic and administrative officer, his wide purview of responsibilities ranged from the development of the undergraduate program to managing the university’s COVID-19 response.
Simon stepped down from the office of EVC to become Duke President Vincent Price’s senior adviser on china. As Simon embarks on his new role, The Chronicle spoke with him to discuss a lifetime of work between the United States and China, and what’s next in his journey in Durham.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: You’ve spent much of the last few decades between the United States and China. Growing up, did you ever think you’d be a university administrator in China?
Denis Simon: One of the stories in my family is that when we would go out to eat and try a Chinese restaurant, I didn't like Chinese food. When I was a freshman in college, I took a course in world politics. This would have been 1970, so China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. Most people in the West didn't know what that was—but at least on paper, it seemed like this magnificent transformative movement to change the basic essence of society. As an 18, 19-year-old person who wanted to see the world move in a direction that was a little bit different from where it was going, China seemed like the new tomorrow.
TC: When you arrived at DKU, the campus was still in its infancy. What were some of your immediate priorities on the ground?
DS: When I got to DKU in August of 2015, there was at best a 50-50 chance that we would have had an undergraduate program. During the first year and a half, I spent a lot of time at the Duke campus, where I became not just an advocate for the project, but more so someone who had credible credentials, who had been to and understood China. And instantly, I had some credibility with the faculty, many of whom were concerned that the idea of an undergraduate program was a pipe dream. So, the first thing was just getting some momentum to get people to trust in the new leadership, and to believe that the vision for the undergraduate program could be implementable and could be achieved.
The second thing that we had to do was that we had a six-building construction plan for Phase One, we had only finished five buildings. I had to find help find a new pathway to construct what became the Innovation Building. Third, we had to negotiate a Phase Two agreement with Kunshan—how the DKU project was going to proceed ahead. And this is all occurring in the context of the movement of U.S.-China relations. We went from 2015-2016 when things were still very good, to where we started to build up a certain amount of tension in the relationship. But at that time, the relationship was very good. People were interested to see, “What would Duke do in China? Could this project be a success?”
Finally, we had to fill all the positions in terms of senior leadership so that we could put in place the vision that started to emerge about undergraduate education, expanded graduate education and research. I was fortunate to have Professor Haiyan Gao as my partner as the vice chancellor for academic affairs, and Chancellor Liu Jingnan, who had been the former president of Wuhan University. He understood something about liberal arts education and what it meant to bring more liberal arts to China.
TC: How did you address ideological differences between yourself and your Chinese counterparts? Was finding common ground a challenge?
DS: I knew that certain conflicts were inherent and that the goal was to manage those and to minimize the areas where we would have a confrontation. The hope was that when we had an issue, Chancellor Liu and I would sit down and I'd say, “This is not going to work. The people at Duke are not gonna accept this, et cetera.” And he would say, “There's a lot of pressure internally, and we've got to do this.” And he and I would both develop a kind of simpatico with one another. He would understand the pressures on my side, particularly about academic freedom issues. And I would understand that as Xi Jinping started to garner more support and more power, he had an agenda, and that agenda was going to be implemented in the education sector as well as everywhere else.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
TC: Academic freedom is a serious point of contention in China. How did you work to preserve it at DKU?
DS: There is something called the cooperative education agreement, a document that was signed by the Chinese government, Duke University and Kunshan and that provides the provisions of how DKU will operate, including a very detailed section about academic freedom. That document guarantees the right that—within the operation of the curriculum, and the mission of the university—that academic freedom parameters will not be violated from the outside.
I also took a very proactive stance about this. We developed a kind of rule, Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth and I, saying, “Never unnecessarily stick your finger in the eye of your Chinese counterpart.” We didn't have a big conference called “The Future of Taiwan.” But that didn't mean that we didn't discuss the future of Taiwan. We didn't have a big public meeting about the Hong Kong demonstrations, but we developed a mini-course to discuss that. It wasn't a sneaky way of doing it: It was saying, “Look, there's a reality in the world out there, we can't ignore that reality—on the other hand, we're also not going to create unnecessary noise that's going to invite trouble.”
TC: EVC is a demanding job. What were the most and least enjoyable aspects of your role?
DS: One of the reasons why I liked this role was that it's not a typical job. The EVC is the one person where the academic and the administrative side of the university come together. The big picture for the institution gets embodied in the work that the EVC does, because the EVC becomes the grand coordinator, the grand facilitator and the major communicator. I find it enjoyable to try to get things to work and to bring in parts of the university together, and integrate them so that we can speak and move with a common voice and a common perspective.
I had to manage the relationship with Duke, which became challenging because it meant that we had to make sure that there was a parallel set of views shared by Duke and DKU. I'm happy to say that one of the positive consequences of the COVID-19 experience was that at the end of these last four or five months, the alignment between Duke and DKU is much stronger and much more coherent than it had been in recent years, because COVID-19 brought it to the point where they had to see eye to eye. The interdependence between the two had grown remarkably stronger than anyone had anticipated during this early period in the university's life.
TC: And that’s something you wanted to see happen?
DS: One of my jobs was always encouraging more support from Duke. Duke has a highly faculty-oriented, consultative governance model where you could have initiatives coming from the top, but without ample consultation from the faculty, most things are not going to go very well. And so moving DKU and Duke in tandem with one another involves not only consultation with the president or the provost, but also involves ample consultation with the Academic Council and the faculty making sure that the faculty are on board.
There are certain commitments that Duke made to be able to deliver a Duke degree for this project. One is the number of Duke-affiliated faculty that will come to the campus and teach courses, the required number of Duke courses you have to take. Duke also made a commitment to the Chinese government about how much Duke involvement there would be, particularly in terms of faculty—these were all measures designed to ensure that they would be Duke quality attached to what was going on on the DKU campus, that we couldn't have something called "Duke lite” or "Duke B". What has happened over the last year, in particular, is that there's a greater understanding of all these things that have to be done to all the stakeholders that have their expectations met. I'm happy that the relationship has coalesced positively.
TC: How did you spend your downtime? What did you do for fun?
DS: If I went to a conference somewhere, I would try to stay for the weekend and a day to learn about a new area. I’ve visited about 20 different Chinese provinces, and over 60 or 70 cities, and I enjoy getting to know these places. Travel for me is enjoyable, relaxing. My pet hobby is fishing. This past year, I went fishing in Iceland, which was a great thrill—So I do have some relaxation time if I can get it. I'm a fan of ‘60s and ‘70s hard rock—Led Zeppelin; Neil Young; Crosby, Stills and Nash—so I love listening to rock music and putting on my headphones and disappearing for an hour.
TC: A big part of the EVC job is working with students. What sets DKU students apart from their counterparts at other universities in China and the United States?
DS: I took charge of the recruitment for the first year, and so I was very heavily involved in helping to set the parameters, the profiles, the verbiage that we used in the messaging about who we were looking for. We wanted kids who are pioneers. We wanted young people who had a pioneering spirit, who were willing to take a little bit of a risk on a university that had not ever existed before on a commitment made by Duke and Wuhan University, and behind that the Chinese government, that this university would not only survive, but it would prosper in the years ahead, and that they would be the beneficiaries of being part of this pioneering group to come.
Our students are fantastic. They're even better than anyone could have ever imagined, and the reason why is that they've taken this mantle of these seven animating principles that we've taught them about, about a purposeful life, about creative expression about critical thinking, and we've watched them—including Chinese students, who were perhaps not taught as much about critical thinking and problem-solving skills in their K-12 education—but after one semester, it was amazing how quickly they transitioned into the modality of the liberal arts education model and were able to perform very, very well. And gradually over the last three years, they've learned in a sense what it means to be successful in this kind of model—they've gravitated to it very well.
TC: You’re leaving at a time of immense strain on the U.S.-China relationship. Do you have any thoughts on how this will play out—and whether it will impact DKU?
DS: I'm very demoralized right now. Once, cooperation in science and technology and education was the bedrock of sustaining the U.S.-China relationship. No matter what had happened between Beijing and Washington, educational cooperation and science and technology cooperation continued to grow, continued to expand. These are areas where people-to-people diplomacy is much more important than government-to-government interaction. The cooperation expanded much further than the governments have ever understood.
What's happened now over the last two years, in particular, is all of a sudden everyone recognizes, “Wow, look what we have here. We have 370,000+ Chinese students in the country, we have this massive number of visiting scholars all over U.S, universities”, and some people believe, incorrectly, somehow China is sucking the lifeblood of American technology to advance Chinese interests to the detriment of the United States. That's just a bogus argument. There are a few bad apples in the barrel, a few people who abuse the rules and take advantage of the access that America affords people coming from all countries. But on the whole, 95%, if not more, of all, the Chinese students and scholars coming to the United States, or Americans coming to China are all well-intentioned, and they're not engaged in any nefarious activities, and they're not self-serving. They do all the things they have to do to be a good citizen in terms of these exchanges.
We have to recognize that the United States and China need one another, that the level of interdependence is so great, there is no global problem out there—energy, climate change environment, water—whose solution will not require some kind of close collaboration between the U.S. and China. If we don't work together, as a pair of countries with their huge resources and huge talent pools to do this, then these problems are not going to be solved in any meaningful way.
I wrote a sentence in a speech for President Price when he made his first trip to China: “DKU represents a beacon of light amid the turbulence of U.S.-China relations.” That's more true today than it was two and a half years ago. The reality is that DKU has shown its worth in terms of what it can provide in terms of building understanding and building collaboration between young people from the two countries. And I hope that not only the U.S. and China, but the rest of the world, can learn from the relationships that are established at DKU, and that the students will have learned lessons and knowledge from their experience at DKU that will allow them to work together in a more positive, productive kind of way.
TC: What was the biggest challenge of building a university from the ground up in China?
DS: DKU as an institution was initially described as a baby being nurtured by three parents, Duke, Wuhan and Kunshan. By year three or four DKU had grown from being a toddler into a young adult. And as a young adult, we began to develop our own opinions about what our needs were, what our perspectives were on various issues. The biggest challenge for me was trying to serve as a vehicle to explain why DKU had a certain perspective that seemed to diverge from where Kunshan was or where Duke was or where Wuhan was, and we had to make sure that we were given enough autonomy so that as an independent university, we were not simply just a passive vehicle for the three partners—that we had an identity of our own. The biggest success and the biggest challenge was making sure that DKU developed the culture of its own, academic culture and administrative culture, and a real institutional culture that had its own identity.
DKU is now like a young teenager who does things independent of what their parents think they ought to do. And so that becomes the point at which there is a healthy discussion that goes on sometimes. The word "healthy" is carefully chosen by me because I do think that discussion is healthy. All the sides have to understand this is not just a bilateral joint venture. This is a global university. The idea is to build a truly global university in China and to bring to bear perspectives from all around the world. We've done a great deal to make that happen.
TC: I remember you mentioning that one of your final duties involved discussions about Phase Three of the campus’s construction. Could you tell us more about what’s to come?
DS: It sounds crazy to think about Phase Three and Phase Four. The sooner we have a design concept, and a vision for what that might be, the better we would be. In my opinion, the problem is that we can't just simply say we're going to make Phase Three a continuation of Phase Two, and go from 2,000 to 3,000 students, because the financial model doesn't allow that to occur. We have to think of some kind of new use, some kind of breakthrough thinking for Phase Three.
The reality is that graduate programs and research activity—maybe Ph.D. programs—may become part of that Phase Three in a way that may not have been initially envisioned. It seems clear that if DKU is going to have a research capability, it's going to have to have some Ph.D. programs. But, nothing has been firmed up yet, only some preliminary discussions—and the new EVC, part of his agenda is going to have to be to formalize what that concept is.
TC: What advice do you have for your successor, Al Bloom? How do you foresee him building upon the foundation you’ve laid at DKU. Where are areas you could see him succeeding?
DS: I told him that I think that funding going forward is a challenge for DKU. Growing the university, developing all the programs, hiring the faculty and putting together the infrastructure cost much more than most of the three partners realized at the point of inception.
The need for scholarship money is another thing that I told him about. We're not ready to do a need-blind admissions process like Duke can because we don't have an endowment, but it would be good for us to make sure that students who meet the qualifications but don't come from well-off families still can come to DKU and that we can support them. That will add to the diversity of the environment and help to build the global nature of the university.
The third is to not be afraid of innovation, that DKU will survive and prosper because we engage in out-of-the-box thinking. And I told him that there's a lot of pressure, because of the largess of the Chinese higher education system, to simply align with existing Chinese universities. He always has to remember that DKU came to China to be different, that our purpose was to bring in this globally oriented innovative liberal arts model, and that we need to stick to our guns—that we continue our commitment to having our students lead a purposeful life, and to have a good ethical and moral compass.
I think he has to move up the learning curve very quickly. COVID-19 has created a whole new set of issues that are going to happen in the Fall semester as to whether or not U.S. universities like Duke are going to have issues in the Spring semester. They're all going to impact DKU. Given COVID-19, how will that affect our student recruitment? Will it affect faculty recruitment?
Last but not least, he's got Phase Two construction—we have a June 2022 schedule of completion. He's going to have to deal with maintaining our schedule and staying on course with the construction.
I think they couldn’t have picked a better person up to the challenge to do this again, with the right kind of experience and the right kind of exposure in terms of joint-venture life. I wish him the best because I care deeply about this institution. I put in five years of intense commitment to make it grow and make it develop. I've taken some heat sometimes for being deliberate in my actions or being tough, but as a whole, the institution is in a good place right now. And I'm proud of what we've achieved over these last five years.
TC: What will your job as Price’s senior advisor on China entail? How do you envision Duke’s relationship with DKU expanding in the future, especially now that you’ll be working so closely with Duke’s leadership?
DS: Duke University has lots of things going on that have great potential in China. My job is to work with both the provost and the president to help find out what the interest level is among the various University deans and then to make those interests realizable, in terms of consummating relationship. Some of those may involve DKU. Some of them may involve cities and geographies that are beyond DKU.
I said DKU should be built as a highly networked platform to connect with different parts of the Chinese education, R&D and economic system. There's no reason why what Duke does in areas like health and environment, et cetera, couldn't be deployed as part of a Belt and Road strategy. Despite all the issues and political problems that exist, I think that the Belt and Road Initiative is going to open up a whole new part of the world economy that could prove to be very beneficial. It's unfortunate the United States has not had an active role in that, but I think Duke could. I'm hoping that my role will be to open up these new vistas, consummate some new relationships and help Duke sow desires to sink deeper roots in China.
TC: Does that play into developing the relationship between Duke and DKU, like expanding in terms of access from Duke students wanting to study at DKU, and general cross-campus collaboration in the future?
DS: I'm hoping, in my opinion, that the fact that Duke students from China who cannot go to Duke in the fall will be studying at DKU for the fall semester sets in place a process where in the future other students could start their Duke education on the DKU campus, and that there is much more embeddedness between Duke and DKU. This gives greater meaning to Duke being an international university. DKU is not just an outpost on the frontier. DKU now is an integral part of the Duke woodwork, and more regular interactions between faculty, staff and students at Duke and at DKU are all part of everyday goings-on. I think if COVID-19 has done anything, it's made that more possible
If Duke opens up other projects in different parts of China, those become places DKU students and faculty can go to take advantage of, particularly if those places are in their fields of interest. And so the bigger the footprint of Duke in China, the more possibilities and options there are for DKU students to take advantage of these. I sense that the more things that we can do in China, the better off Duke will be. Duke has commitments to other parts of the world, but if you're going to make some bets, and you're going to make some big bets, why not bet in the country that's going to shape the future of the global system in the years to come? Why not have a good working relationship with that country? What better way to seal your positive future than to be able to have a good working relationship with China? So I'm hoping that we will seize upon these opportunities, take advantage of them and build out the things that are of interest to the faculty at Duke and DKU.
TC: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
DS: If we keep going and moving ahead with this same kind of innovative spirit, we will end up where we hope to be. We've got to be careful about things like micromanagement, excessive bureaucracy, succumbing to all the pressures that are on us for conformity. The leadership must embody this spirit of adventure and change and difference to make DKU realize its potential. If that doesn't happen, then DKU loses its uniqueness. The thing that makes it most valuable is its uniqueness. So I'm hoping that that can be sustained into the future.
Charlie Colasurdo is a sophomore in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.