Durham County

It’s full speed ahead at Duke to bring more students to its China and Durham campuses

Duke Kunshan University is preparing to enroll undergraduate students for the first time in the fall of 2018 and come the 2020-21 academic year will be sending them to study on Duke University’s Durham campus.
Duke Kunshan University is preparing to enroll undergraduate students for the first time in the fall of 2018 and come the 2020-21 academic year will be sending them to study on Duke University’s Durham campus. Duke University

Plans for a launch of undergraduate programs at Duke University’s branch in China next year remain on schedule, meaning the institution can expect an influx of visiting students here on its Durham campus starting in the fall of 2020, Provost Sally Kornbluth and her aides say.

Duke Kunshan University is already taking applications for its inaugural first-year class, ahead of taking about 225 students on board for the fall of 2018. They’ll spend their first two years on the Kunshan campus, come to Durham during junior year and return to the Shanghai suburb to complete their studies.

When it comes time for them to come to Duke, the plan’s to split the class in half, one group coming for the fall semester and the other the spring, “with the contiguous summer potentially attached,” Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Jennifer Francis said as she gave Duke’s Academic Council a progress report on the China initiative.

Francis conceded that academic and student-affairs officials are still working through questions about how the Durham campus will handle the influx of students, services- and teaching-wise. Admissions officials at Kunshan ideally want 175 students from China in the initial class, and 50 more from other countries including the U.S., she added.

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Subsequent classes at Kunshan will be larger than the first. Officials intend to enroll 500 new students there each fall so its undergraduate program can ultimately serve 2,000 students at a time. Graduates will receive a joint degree from both Duke Kunshan and Duke University, with a quarter of the instruction behind it coming from Duke University faculty.

The Kunshan project is a long-term attempt by Duke to build ties with and a footprint in the world’s most populous country, one that’s expected to surpass the U.S. in economic power in the not-too-district future. The China campus opened in 2014, focusing initially on graduate-level programs.

From the start, however, the project has been controversial among both faculty and alumni who’ve questioned both the merit of Duke’s establishing a presence in an authoritarian country and the the possibility that it would divert money and other resources from the Durham campus.

The Academic Council endorsed the undergraduate program last November, and even with the experience of the graduate program to draw on there was still significant dissent ahead of the 57-18 vote. One council member, Duke School of Law professor Larry Zelenak, questioned whether the Kunshan campus can operate for long as “a sea of academic freedom in an ocean of repression.”

So far, though, the Chinese government has honored its promises, including on the question of internet access. There’s been no interference with the virtual private network or VPN linking Kunshan and Durham, Francis and Kornbluth said.

Duke has also held firm on the terms of its financial commitment to the undergraduate program, a $5 million annual subsidy, Kornbluth said.

“We have stuck to the letter of the plan we articulated to the Academic Council,” she said, adding that professors here in Durham are “being compensated” for the extra time they’ve put in to develop majors and courses for the Kunshan campus and screen potential faculty hires.

So far, Duke Kunshan has hired 22 professors for the upcoming launch and is recruiting more. The new hires are a mix of people, with about a third coming from China, another third from the U.S. and Canada, and the remaining third from the rest of the world. About 10 of them are starting work in January, and in late February will travel to Durham for meetings with their Duke counterparts, Francis said.

Duke Kunshan will have tenure-track professorships, with faculty sized up for long-term retention against standards that will put more weight on teaching ability than would be the norm for the research-focused Durham campus, Kornbluth said.

The provost stressed that a faculty job with Kunshan is not supposed to become “a back door or entré on to the” Durham faculty.

While there’s plenty of room for collaboration, a joint faculty appointment here and in China “would have to be an exceptional case where the Duke school” involved on the Durham end “really wanted this for some reason,” Kornbluth said.

That said, Duke professors are expected to travel to China to teach semesters there, as they do for the graduate program, and the provost’s office is setting up fellowships for post-doctoral students and “advanced graduate students” interested in going to China and who’d count as Duke faculty.

China’s Ministry of Education has approved eight of the majors the Kunshan campus plans to offer, and is mulling applications for seven more. The degree offerings are more cross-disciplinary than is the norm for primary degrees from Durham. “They don’t map neatly onto any of Duke’s majors,” Kornbluth said, adding that the launch is giving Duke administrators and faculty a chance to “do some experimenting” in how to meld disciplines.

The city of Kunshan is responsible for building the additional classrooms, offices and support facilities the China campus will need. That work won’t be done by the fall of 2018 and in fact is a three-year project, but officials have scheduling options and swing space to make things work in the meantime, Francis said.

Student housing at Kunshan remains a concern, one administrators might solve by renting a nearby hotel until the actual campus dorms are ready.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg