Designing and building Duke Kunshan University is something new for both Duke and the city of Kunshan. And because Duke is emphasizing quality over time and money, the project has faced delays and construction costs are higher than anticipated, said Duke Provost Peter Lange, speaking Thursday before the Academic Council.
Yet the bottom line, Lange said, is that Duke's relationship with the city officials has become more frank and open over time, and DKU will have the campus it needs. The first classes at DKU are now expected to start in fall 2014.
"Any project of this magnitude you do is going to be difficult, but the difficulties are complicated when you do it 12,000 miles away in another language and culture," Lange said. "It's further complicated by the fact that someone else is paying the construction costs, but we are setting the standards."
Construction slowed in 2012 and the Duke oversight team found that some construction standards were not to their liking. Lange emphasized that safety was not an issue, but quality was. "We are a more demanding client than they are used to," he said. "Duke has consistently pressed for quality over time and money. The implication is that work has taken longer."
Lange spoke to the full council a week after discussing DKU plans and finances with the Arts and Sciences Faculty Council. At a time of tight academic budgets, some faculty have asked if the project is hurting core programs.
But Lange said current financial pressures come from other sources: rising costs of undergraduate financial aid and the need to replenish Strategic Initiative Plan funds that had been used to protect academic programs and to sustain new faculty hiring in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse.
"SIP funds provided academic units a bridge to better economic times, but the bridge can't continue," Lange said.
The DKU construction delays in fact are reducing costs in the short-term because operating costs haven't yet kicked in as budgeted, Lange said. Duke has funded the DKU master plan and project oversight, but Kunshan has made a sizable commitment of funds to cover all other construction costs.
Duke's major financial commitment won't come until the university nears opening and starts taking on operating costs, which will be shared 50/50 between Duke and Kunshan, Lange said. Initially, Duke's projected commitment was $38.4 million over seven years, but the current estimate is $41 million over eight years.
Some $10 million of that commitment will come from SIP funds, but Lange noted that constitutes only about 3 percent of the $363 million of planned SIP expenditures over the next five years.
Lange will meet in March with Academic Council chair Susan Lozier and John Payne, chair of the University Priorities Committee, to detail the assumptions behind the projections.
Lozier, who in 2011 warned of a "communications gap" between faculty and administrators on the project, said she sees sustained faculty interest and involvement in the project. "I've always expected construction delays on a project of this nature," Lozier told the council. "I would have been more worried if there was walk-back in enthusiasm and commitment. From what I've seen there hasn't been."
Lange said the relationship between Duke and its partners in China has grown and improved over the course of the projects, even through the delays. Conversations over design and material choices are now more comfortable. "We've learned we can be more frank with them about our concerns than we have been in the past," he said. He added that Kunshan officials now have a better sense of Duke expectations and that "they have acknowledged that their oversight wasn't as strong as it could have been."
In other council news, Joshua Socolar, professor of physics, was elected to succeed Lozier as Academic Council chair. He defeated law professor Tom Metzloff and will begin a two-year term on July 1.