Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle, usually published every other Friday.
On July 1, Al Bloom took office as executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, following an international search chaired by Duke political science professor Edmund Malesky. He succeeded Denis Simon.
Prior to his appointment, Dr. Bloom served as NYU Abu Dhabi’s founding vice chancellor and president of Swarthmore College. The Chronicle reached out to the DKU community to gather questions for the university’s newly inaugurated administrator and caught up virtually with Bloom to talk about his new position.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: Preceding your appointment at DKU, you served as the inaugural vice chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi and president of Swarthmore College. I’m wondering how you ended up here, on the other side of Asia.
Al Bloom: A month’s stay with a Chinese family in Taiwan during the summer before my senior year at Princeton, followed quickly by an extraordinary course in Chinese philosophy during that senior year, combined to ignite in me an ever-deepening admiration and keen enthusiasm for Chinese culture and the Chinese people. I continue to be drawn most importantly by the warmth, welcome, and depth of thought and experience of the Chinese I have known; by the phenomenal complexity, subtlety and possibilities of their language; and by the richness of Chinese cultural expression across education, technology, the arts and food. Stepping down from a decade devoted to building a university in Abu Dhabi, shaped to a global world, it was natural that I would look for a similar opportunity in China, and I could not be more excited about the spectacular institution I found.
TC: An interdisciplinary liberal arts approach is a hallmark of the DKU curriculum. Kolleen Guy, a DKU associate professor of history, is chair of the division of arts and humanities at DKU and wanted to better understand your experiences with the liberal arts. What did you find fulfilling or challenging about being an undergraduate at a liberal arts college? Do you think liberal arts education is as relevant now as it was then?
AB: I am a deep admirer of the liberal arts for its conceptual and ethical educational impact and because of its willingness to embrace education that seeks an environmentally and socially responsible, inclusive and cooperative world. It equips students with a rich range of complementary analytic lenses and creative strategies for understanding and finding meaning and pleasure in the world. And when shaped to the task, it builds the global perspective, the multidimensional understanding of the challenges facing our world, and the capacity for personally connecting across differences, for which higher education must take responsibility in this century.
TC: You’ve spent much of your education and administrative experiences in traditional liberal arts institutions, transitioning to NYU Abu Dhabi and now DKU later on in life. Rebekah Alvarenga, a junior at Duke and co-chair of the Kunshan Student Ambassador Council, was interested in knowing why you think these joint-venture institutions are important.
AB: “Joint” explicitly denotes that two nations and cultures come together not simply to create an institution that transplants a microcosm of one of them into the context of the other, but to create an institution which draws on the best of both and models the processes of seeking mutual understanding, trust and partnership needed to bridge a fractured world.
TC: The subject of what’s happening in the fall at DKU is weighing heavily on all of our minds. DKU Junior Stella Wang wanted to know if you’ll be arriving in China on time. If not, how do you foresee the challenges of making important decisions while away from campus?
AB: My wife and I are eager to relocate to China as soon as it is possible. In the meantime, and often on an hourly basis, I make use of global technology to establish personal bonds with the Duke and DKU communities; to deepen my understanding of DKU’s strengths, needs, perspectives and ideas; to make the timely decisions the institution requires; and to motivate and guide continuation of the highly responsible and creative planning processes that have brought DKU to the level of innovative excellence it has already achieved.
TC: When you do get to China, you’ll certainly have your hands full. What are your immediate institutional priorities when you arrive?
AB: My immediate priorities are to truly become a member of the DKU community, to support that community as it reengages the passion and optimism of its distinctive educational mission and continues the process of developing an increasingly clear and compelling vision for its own future.
TC: You’ll be arriving on campus at an uncertain point in Sino-American relations. Sophomore Saad Lahrichi wonders how you view DKU’s role when tensions are so high between the United States and China?
AB: In the past thirty years, there has not been a moment more critical for reinforcing connections of mutual understanding, trust and common purpose between China and the U.S.
TC: If the current travel restrictions remain in place through the fall, DKU will be mostly made up of Chinese students and faculty. Elva Yu, a junior from China, wonders how you would work to achieve a sense of “internalization” on and off-campus, even without international students and faculty physically present.
AB: We will extend every effort to keep our international community connected to campus, including creating campus events to which they will actively contribute and ensuring the vivid expression of their cultures and historic and current experience in curriculum and campus life.
TC: You were instrumental in the establishment at NYU Abu Dhabi. Now that you’ve seen the university develop out of the “experimental” phase, what lessons have you learned that you hope to apply at DKU? How do you feel your role at NYU Abu Dhabi was similar to or different than your new role at DKU?
AB: The most important lesson I take from my NYU Abu Dhabi experience is that a university can cultivate in students the capacity and readiness to apprehend and examine the world in global terms and the ability to bridge its differences with sensitivity. And it can do so in ways that crucially reinforce the traditional goals of the finest undergraduate education.
TC: DKU is a unique institution within the Duke ecosystem in that it’s majority Asian, complemented by students from over 40 countries, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Hajra Farooqui, a junior from Pakistan, and Nika Tatoshvili, a first-year from Georgia, were curious about how to plan to make the university more inclusive to students from all backgrounds.
AB: Identifying the nature and breadth of the diversity we seek in our student body must continue to be a critical dimension of DKU’s vision for itself and of its planning for its future. Getting the word out to students and families worldwide who are looking for this kind of education, and encouraging institutions worldwide that seek to become partners in offering it, must continue to be compelling dimensions of DKU’s outreach to the world.
TC: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the undergraduate program at DKU, but we also host a variety of concurrent Duke graduate-degree programs. Darci Davis, a student in the master of science in global health program at DKU, wants to know how you would expand efforts in recruiting, programming and career readiness for graduate students as these programs expand.
AB: Graduate programs must be planned, evaluated and supported in light of their pedagogic and intellectual excellence and their institutional role. How productively do they relate to DKU’s undergraduate program and to fellow graduate programs at Duke? How effectively do they reinforce the vision of a university dedicated to a global perspective and global progress? How do they strengthen regard for DKU in China and across the world, and how sustainable are they financially? Graduate programs were the initial foundation upon which DKU was built, and we certainly want graduate programs to continue as intrinsic dimensions of the rich educational contribution DKU offers to its students, to China and to the world.
TC: The United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, and China both present challenges to academic freedoms. Junior Anisha Joshi wonders how you strike a balance in maintaining a liberal institution in a country that is not very liberal.
AB: In building institutions that seek to connect nations and cultures, one must start from a position that expects and respects difference, and proceed by listening carefully to others’ points of view and by coming to understand the experiences and values that inform and support those points of view while analyzing the consistency and complexity of one’s own. Pursued honestly, such processes not only develop an understanding of why the other might take a differing stand, but often bring to light a range of perspectives, values and ends that are shared. Moreover, sincere efforts to reach mutual understanding generate new levels of mutual trust and a deeper appreciation of the other as a fellow human being.
TC: DKU is among a handful of joint-venture universities in China, including NYU Shanghai. McLaren Christensen, a first-year from the United States, is interested in how you promote campus relations between DKU and nearby schools like NYU Shanghai.
AB: All of us must reach out to the members of other educational institutions, whether on the basis of common responsibilities, common interests, common concerns—or just to enjoy each other’s company. That outreach significantly expands our perspectives on the world; opens new academic, social, and cultural opportunities; offers avenues for building alliances around goals important to us; and ensures that we do not project to others a sense of unapproachability or lack of welcome.
TC: Let’s look to the future. Duke will celebrate its centennial in 2024, the year the incoming first-year class will graduate. By this point, Phase Three of DKU’s campus will be under construction and the university will have expanded in myriad ways. What do you want to accomplish at DKU in the next five years? Ten years?
AB: To shape a model of higher education that, through persuasion and example, convinces higher education worldwide that developing a global perspective, global understanding and personal capacity to bridge differences is a critical component of the educational mission of this century.
Charlie Colasurdo is a sophomore in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai.
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