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Duke Kunshan campus rendering

Duke Kunshan Turns 10

The university’s joint venture in China is proving the value of international collaboration

Haoming Bai ’23 grew up in the relatively small Chinese city of Fushun. Then he outgrew it.

About 1,000 miles south of Fushun, in Kunshan, was a young liberal arts university that could be Bai’s ticket to graduate school and career options in the wider world. In 2019 he enrolled at Duke Kunshan University, where the data science major was immediately immersed in an international student body. Today Bai is a graduate student at the Fuqua School of Business whose goal, he says with a grin, is to make money.

“I’m an ambitious guy,” he says.

In August 2023, Duke President Vincent Price and a contingent of Duke leaders visited Kunshan to celebrate DKU’s 10th anniversary. Founded in 2013, the campus admitted its first undergraduates in 2018. That group graduated in 2022 with degrees from both DKU and Duke. Already, DKU has produced recipients of prestigious fellowships such as the Schwarzman, Yenching and Rhodes scholarships.

A joint venture between Duke, Wuhan University and the City of Kunshan, DKU is a small campus with 1,447 undergraduates and 227 graduate students as of fall 2023. The student body is about 70 percent Chinese and 30 percent international. While some American students are in this group, the international cohort represents dozens of nations, including some less likely to send students to U.S. universities for various reasons.

Even while relations between China and the U.S. are rocky, this experiment in international education and collaboration grows.

“I have witnessed the whole process, from a vision all the way to today,” says Luke Hanguo Li M.B.A.’06, dean of DKU’s China Enrollment Management Office and the first person hired by DKU. His enthusiasm is infectious even across 16 time zones and through a laptop screen. “When I retire, when I’ve got gray hair over my head, wrinkles all over my face, I will tell myself, ‘You spent the best part of your life in a very good way.’”

The joint campus’s roots go back to 2005. That year, the Duke University School of Medicine partnered with the National University of Singapore and opened the Duke-NUS Medical School. An inspired Blair Sheppard, Fuqua’s dean at the time, proceeded to travel through Asia, seeking a partner for a similar joint-venture business school. In April 2007, Sheppard met with Guan Aiguo, then Kunshan’s mayor, who had been trying to recruit a university.

“[Kunshan] is actually a small city in China in relative terms, and fairly low in the hierarchy,” says Peter Lange, Duke’s provost from 2004 to 2014 and an honorary citizen of Kunshan for his foundational work building DKU. “This was a very big initiative for a city of that type. And, in some ways, for us.”

Kunshan in 2007 reminded Lange of Durham 40 years ago: scrappy and relatively small, with drive and potential. Lange met weekly with then-Duke President Richard Brodhead, who was especially passionate about DKU. At the time, US-China relations were substantially warmer, and Duke, for its part, followed a vision of international collaboration. By the time Wuhan University joined the effort in 2011, what had been a Fuqua initiative became a broader Duke University project. The idea, however, was not to build a satellite campus.

“We’re not here to take Durham or Duke or the U.S. and implant it in China,” says Noah Pickus, associate provost at Duke and DKU’s dean of academic strategy and learning innovation. “Just look at the history of the world.”

Pickus led curriculum design and faculty hiring in DKU’s early days. The goal was to draw from American and Chinese higher education without cobbling together something that was “one part zebra, one part elephant, one part rabbit,” he says. It needed to be holistic, integrated and modern. Innovating within established institutions is tough, but DKU was young and small – a true blank slate. It could be an aggressively interdisciplinary institution.

“The whole four years there is a continual exploration of other topics and other disciplines,” says Benjamin Bacon, director of signature work and associate professor of media and arts at DKU. “The student is constantly being challenged with new ideas.”

Shortly after Bacon’s 2019 hire, COVID scattered DKU’s students across the globe during China’s first lockdown. Bacon and his partner had traveled to the U.S. for Chinese New Year in early 2020 and couldn’t return to Kunshan until fall. Stuck in a Durham hotel room, Bacon led the development of DKU’s signature work program.

“All students would go through the same short program,” he explains. “It would be basically independent research.”

Signature work, which started with the inaugural undergraduate class of ’22, is an interdisciplinary project of the student’s choice. Experience with faculty mentors is key, Bacon says, and gives DKU undergrads a similar experience to working with a thesis adviser. Signature work can be independent from the student’s major, too: Rhodes Scholar Ege Duman ’22, for instance, majored in global health and biology, but his signature work was a complex philosophical dive into the Greek myth of Cronus eating his children.

“[These] are some innovations that couldn’t be practiced on Duke’s campus,” says Li. “For any mature university to introduce a lot of innovations is not easy. DKU is a new university – a new platform – and it’s a small campus. This enables Duke to really introduce a lot of innovative ideas into [DKU’s] curriculum.”

Li cites its aggressively interdisciplinary curriculum and its early adoption of signature work for all undergraduate students as reasons DKU is not just distinct as a university in China, but as a university worldwide. And it is an international school, between its global student body and its guest teachers traveling from Duke, which is especially critical in 2023, Li says. His enthusiastic cadence slows a little, matching the gravity of the current political situation.

“Xi Jinping mentioned, in the meeting with Mr. Kissinger a few months ago, that he hopes that non-government exchanges between the two countries serve as the foundation for the relief of Sino-U.S. relationships because he's very disappointed with government relations,” Li says, referring to retired U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s July visit to the Chinese leader.

DKU formed during a honeymoon period between China and the U.S., Li says, yet that relationship has soured. To him, DKU is more than just a university. It’s a bridge between the peoples of two countries, even if governments can’t see eye to eye.

“A lot of the confrontations and problems between the two countries are caused by misunderstandings,” he says. “Chinese people don't understand how the American people think and American people don't understand how the Chinese people think.”

DKU exposes tomorrow’s government and industry leaders to their counterparts from other countries and cultures, Bacon says. When they know each other as individuals they’re less likely to make mistakes, he adds.

“It's these ties between people that really will make changes for the future,” Bacon says. “This family living right next door [in China] wants the same things that my family does back in the U.S. They want a good job. They want good education for the children, they want to see themselves succeed.”

At DKU, Duman saw this in practice. At a larger school, friend groups are more exclusive. They don’t mix. Sure, he noticed pockets of conservatives, liberals, Muslims, LGBTQ students – you name it – hanging out at DKU, yet they didn’t avoid one another. At this truly international institution, the student body formed a single community.