Faculty Approve Undergraduate Degree Program at Duke Kunshan University

Proposal now goes to Duke Board of Trustees

After more than three years of work that included the development of a new curriculum and extensive discussions of academic freedom, financial risk, quality control and other issues, the Academic Council voted 57—18 to endorse a four-year undergraduate degree program at Duke Kunshan University Thursday.

The vote moves the proposed program one step closer to approval. The Duke Board of Trustees is expected to take up the proposal in December, after which it will move to the Duke Kunshan board of trustees for final action.

The Academic Council vote came after nearly 90 minutes of debate that aired out both benefits and risks and referenced the potential effects of the 2016 US election and a new president who has threatened to sanction the Chinese government.  Duke Kunshan has been a frequent topic of discussion at the council meetings since the concept first surfaced in 2008

Duke President Richard H. Brodhead began the discussion praising the faculty for three years of constructive and thoughtful consideration. He contrasted it with the national debate during the past presidential election.

“At Duke, the process of inquiry and exchanging point of views has taken this idea from what it was three years past to where we find it today,” Brodhead said. “Even a person who might not favor the proposal understands it has something to do with connecting us to one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world. And a person supportive of it would understand clearly some of the questions and challenges. It as a tribute to an elaborate decision-making process and people using intellectual discussion instead of trying to bring it down.”

Duke Kunshan opened in 2014 with master’s degree programs in medical physics, global health and management studies and an undergraduate semester offering. A fourth graduate program in environmental policy will begin next year.

But the launching of a four-year undergraduate program will be an important milestone for the university. Students will receive a Duke degree – equivalent to those awarded to undergraduates here in Durham, but with notation indicating it was conferred through Duke Kunshan University.

For China, faculty said, Duke Kunshan provides the kind of liberal arts education they’re currently missing in their educational system that is heavy on rote-learning.

“Chinese universities are looking closely at Duke Kunshan and thinking about following it as a model,” said classical studies professor William Johnson who taught a semester at the university.  “But it’s not a situation that we are just sending our greater wisdom over there. We have a lot to learn from them. Teaching them about the classical world, I learned a lot about democracy from talking to these incredibly smart students.”

History Professor Thomas Robisheaux said the proposal was forward-thinking for Duke. “When voting, I urged faculty to think for the long-term,” said Robisheaux, who was chair of the Arts & Sciences Council when the undergraduate curriculum was first considered. “I would like my alma mater to be on the name of an institute that transplanted a 1000-year-old tradition of liberal arts education to a new continent.”

Nicholas School Professor Jim Zhang and others spoke about how a stronger presence inside China was valuable for their scholarship and matched Chinese interest in promoting research on the issues they face.  As a researcher of air pollution, Zhang said, “This is a place where you want to make the most impact.”

Supporters outnumbered opposition speakers, but several concerns were raised again about academic freedom and human rights. Former Engineering Dean Earl Dowell added an institutional: That Duke Kunshan would be a small liberal arts university, something more akin to Williams College rather than Duke. “I’m trying to figure out why we are getting into the business of being a small liberal arts teaching college when Williams could do that better.”

Economist Charles Becker said the financial risks were well understood, but he urged faculty to also consider the opportunity costs as well when voting. “We only have limited number of things we can to do,” Becker said. “Moving into China comes with opportunity costs. We could instead be moving into and, for example, Mexico.”

The 2016 presidential election may have added to Duke Kunshan’s challenges, but Brodhead told faculty that at “a moment when nations and cultures are beginning to divest from the international order seems to me is a time that the world needs a Duke Kunshan more than ever. We need universities and other institutions to build constructive global partnerships no matter what else is going on in the world.”