Duke’s China project delayed again

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 07:36 PM

Duke University’s top academic officer acknowledged Thursday that there have been delays and problems with the construction of the university’s new campus in China, but insisted that the project continues to move forward.

Building Duke Kunshan University is “complicated and expensive,” Provost Peter Lange told the school’s Academic Council. And any difficulties “are compounded when the project is 12,000 miles away [and you’re dealing] with another language and another culture,” he said.

Lange was responding to what he recognized were concerns about DKU, which the Duke administration originally had hoped to open this past fall in a town near Shanghai. But a series of delays has repeatedly pushed back the start date, the project still has not received final approval from the Chinese Ministry of Education and Duke’s share of the costs have risen.

Most recently, the administration conceded that classes won’t begin in Kunshan until the fall of 2014 and that construction slowed in 2012 because of concerns over the quality of the work.

“We have had delays because it became evident to us that construction was not proceeding at a quality level we expected,” Lange told the council, the faculty’s main governing body.

He quickly added that the problems in construction were not structural — “the buildings aren’t going to fall down,” Lange said.

Instead, the problems were with interior details, he explained, like where duct work would go.

“We are a much more demanding client” than the officials in Kunshan are used to, Lange suggested. “And perhaps they entrusted the construction oversight and their selection of some of the contractors was not as good as they could have been.”

But Duke is now providing “the oversight we need to get the quality we want,” Lange said.

That, however, will cost Duke more than the $8 million it previously had committed to DKU for monitoring construction.

“There will be some increase in this amount,” Lange said, “and we are currently negotiating" what that amount will be. But he insisted the funds needed would not otherwise be used for academic programs.

And, in general, money for the Chinese campus, the provost said, was “not a source of the pressures” currently weighing on Duke’s budget.            

Lange noted in his relatively brief remarks that while the delays were unfortunate, they have given the university time for program development and recruitment and have not affected the relationship with officials in the city of Kunshan.

“In general, it’s a very good relationship,” he said. “And we have learned we can be more frank with them than in the past.”

Susan Lozier, the chair of the council, seemed assured by Lange’s defense of the project.

“I’d be more worried if there were any walk-backs in enthusiasm and commitment” to the project,” Lozier said. “But I haven’t seen that.”