Duke-Kunshan University: Time for Trustees and Faculty to Reflect


April 26, 2011

THE ISSUE: Since the  April 7th Chronicle editorial encouraging the administration to “get the faculty on board with Kunshan” (and Prof. Pfau’s response to it the next day), countless conversations and email exchanges have demonstrated for us several things:

·       Support among faculty and alumni for Duke-Kunshan University (DKU) is tepid at best, and in large portions of our university, non-existent.

·       The administration has failed to articulate in a coherent and compelling way the substantive educational and research mission served by operating a bricks-and-mortar campus well outside Shanghai.

·       The administration has revealed no concrete plans how to deploy a sufficient number of Duke’s core faculty for the new programs at Kunshan, but without whom Kunshan cannot provide a Duke-quality education and research operation.

·       The administration still has to provide a financial plan to make DKU sustainable, let alone meaningful, undertaking during a time of fiscal duress here at Duke.

While the administration has intermittently consulted with the Academic Council and a few other committees, our follow-up conversations with members on these deliberative bodies reveal that many of the hard questions put to the administration have gone substantially unanswered. The university committed significant amounts of resources well ahead of detailing the hard part of planning the mission and operation of the new campus. This is putting the cart before the horse.  To have allocated “the better part of an hour” to discussing DKU with the Executive Committee of the Academic Council (ECAC)—to quote a charmingly naïve phrase that found its way into a public email that President Brodhead recently sent to Prof. Pfau—hardly seems adequate for a venture that, even by the administration’s breezy accounting, will at least divert $37 million in net subsidies from Duke’s U.S. operations to China over the coming six years.  Moreover, as any sober and experienced planner knows, such early cost projections will inevitably exceed that amount in the course of implementing such a complex undertaking. 

      We therefore demand a thorough review of all operational teaching and research programs planned for Kunshan and a moratorium on contractual commitments for the DKU campus, until the faculty’s Academic Council, the Board of Trustees and Duke’s senior management have agreed on the operational outlines of these plans. -Let us discuss each of the critical points in more detail.

THE RESEARCH AND EDUCATIONAL MISSION OF DKU: The “Planning Guide” for DKU offers few substantive answers to the many crucial questions regarding the DKU initiative and resorts to often grandiose rhetoric about the wholesale transformation of duke into a “globally-networked university” (p. 3). Before financial commitments of this scale can be made, first and foremost Duke’s schools and departments must formulate the programs that are worth running at DKU and answer these questions:

·       How does the location contribute to the academic mission of the programs? And how do the programs advance the mission of Duke University?

·       What are the opportunity costs of not pursuing alternative, more flexible frameworks of educational and research collaboration with Chinese partners around projects that do not require the high asset specificity of a dedicated campus?

·       How do we make sure that DKU does not devolve into something akin to the set-up of a very expensive and inflexible summer program, albeit for Chinese students: The external scenery outside the buildings is different from North Carolina, but inside Duke faculty and DKU students pursue teaching and research activities that could proceed from Duke’s home campus at much lower costs. Are we creating only a “Duke academic bubble” well over 7,000 miles away from Duke?  At the very least, it seems altogether implausible that compressed three- and six-week seminars taught at DKU could possibly offer students—whether Chinese or American—the “significant international and cultural experience” that the “Planning Guide” envisions.


THE DEPLOYMENT OF DUKE ASSETS ON THE DKU CAMPUS:  The planning document so far incorporates no realistic assessment of what Duke resources it will take to satisfy the interests that Duke’s Chinese partners.

      Based on the experience of other Anglo-Saxons universities in China, what Chinese partners want foremost from Western universities are (1) excellent core faculty in the classroom and the research labs and (2) superb administrators who can demonstrate to their Chinese counterparts how to set up state-of-the-art university management and governance structures. From the Chinese side, the purpose of collaboration with Western universities is “soft” technology transfer of professional skills.

      But is Duke able and willing to commit the resources necessary to satisfy our Chinese partners? Anything but a substantial number of first-rate Duke core faculty present on the DKU campus frequently and for long time periods would make Duke’s prospective Chinese partners perceive Duke’s commitment as insincere. As a matter of tit-for-tat, if Duke were not to make a sincere human capital commitment to the DKU campus, why should the Chinese partners?

We hence ask the administrators to outline the projections of numbers of senior faculty and administrators they tend to deploy at DKU to run the new programs. Moreover, the administration should reveal the plans they are making to ensure that sufficient Duke faculty and administrators actually commit to repeated stays at DKU.  Once worthwhile programs to be run at DKU have been agreed, can Duke find the core faculty that is willing to breathe life into the Kunshan operation? What incentives will it take to put American core faculty into DKU on a sustained basis?

Failing to put a substantial number of core faculty and well-prepared senior administrators onto the DKU campus repeatedly and for long periods of time, how would Duke handle the personnel shortfall? How would our Chinese partners react, if Duke revealed a less sincere commitment, e.g. by parachuting faculty in for short periods of time, say 3-6 week stints in which no “embedding” in the local context could conceivably take place, or by hiring adjunct and short-term faculty, typically of lesser scholarly quality and endowed with a very different set of aspirations than core tenured faculty, to teach DKU’s students? Alternatively, could alternative Chinese faculty with training and academic proficiency equivalent to Duke’s senior faculty be found and hired in China itself? What would be conceivable procedures of personnel recruitment in that country to ensure that local faculty meets Duke standards of excellence?

We are asking these questions in the full knowledge that other Anglo-Saxon universities have run into the brick wall of not being able to convince or compel their home faculty and senior administrative management to serve repeatedly and for long time periods on Chinese campuses. And getting beyond this brick wall by offering large incentives to sought-after faculty and administrators could become prohibitively expensive, creating yet another unanticipated financial liability of the DKU project.

Personnel requirements at DKU may place Duke between a rock and a hard place: Either Duke allocates core faculty and high-quality administrators to the DKU campus properly, but then incurs horrendous additional costs for salary supplements and research budgets to lure sophisticated professionals as expats into this new venture. Or Duke acts opportunistically and relies on less skilled short-term hired hands, peripheral adjunct faculty and mediocre administrators, but then runs the risk of losing its credibility in the eyes of its Chinese partners, and consequently face arduous administrative and political struggles with them that ultimately will also translate into a fiscal hemorrhage from Duke’s core operations.


FINANCIAL PROJECTIONS FOR THE DKU CAMPUS. The administration’s publicly circulated “Planning Guide” for DKU is a heavily abbreviated and edited document of 23 pages the full version of which is said to run to 47 pages and 30 pages of appendices. What is missing from the published version—and possibly included in the confidential version (s)—are sensitivity analyses of cost and revenue projections for the new campus. The published version of the document makes unabashedly optimistic assumptions that defy credulity.

            A very large share of revenue sustaining the DKU campus is expected to flow from student tuition. What is the price point assumed in these projections? If tuition is set very high for Chinese income levels (say at $ 30K/year), what makes Duke administrators confident that Chinese students with advanced English language competence will want to spend such exorbitant fees for a course of training at Kunshan that largely deprives them of cultural immersion in an Anglo-Saxon country?

            Furthermore, is not China already awash in college graduates, sporting degrees of all sorts, including from highly reputable domestic universities, and yet increasingly unable to find suitable employment? And, if Duke’s tuition price-point should prove too high for Chinese families, how is Duke to deal with its then much more substantial losses from the DKU venture? Have financial reserves been created to cope with the likely cost overruns? What Duke home programs will need to be cut or sacrificed in order to sustain those losses? What would be the trigger point for an exit strategy from Kunshan, and what would such an exit strategy look like?


TIME TO REFLECT: Given the rushed planning and poorly articulated rationale for DKU thus far, as members of Duke’s core faculty with each more than twenty years of teaching and research on the Duke campus, we feel obliged to issue a strong word of caution: Should DKU be allowed to move forward as currently envisioned, it is likely to jeopardize Duke's long-term academic reputation and financial health. We therefore believe it is time for reflection and a moratorium on further contractual commitments, until basic questions have been clarified.

            Nothing less than the character of Duke’s philosophy of teaching and research is at stake in these debates, as an attentive perusal of the Duke-Kunshan Planning Guide will readily demonstrate. If Duke administrators endorse opportunistic and insincere plans for teaching, research, and academic governance on DKU’s campus, such practices may even threaten to transform the very nature of advanced inquiry and knowledge at Duke University itself. We may be shifting from the idea of sustained cultivation of ("pure") research to the fast-paced manufacture of superficial knowledge as a transient and potentially empty commodity.  The amorphous vision of "a globally-networked university of embedded and connected relationships and institutions" as articulated in the DKU Planning Guide (p. 3) is alarmingly devoid of substantive educational goals and specific curricular mechanisms; conversely, the "Planning Guide" waxes enthusiastic about "brand recognition for Duke" (p. 7) which, in a particularly revealing formulation, shall "provide an imprimatur of legitimacy" (p. 4) to the entire endeavor.

To our consternation, no specific programs have thus far been presented to the Academic Council for approval, even as the administration “expects academic programs to begin in the late summer of 2012” (p. 5).  The current, rush to implement the distressingly vague conception of a "global university" is long on ambitious rhetoric but woefully short on a coherent intellectual rationale. Is DKU essentially to be a glorified degree mill churning out academically diluted and cheapened MBA’s and MA’s?  Furthermore, on the research side, the current administration’s declared attempt to re-purpose the university to a vague, albeit hyper-ventilating quest for world-wide "problem solving" strikes us as highly speculative in its aspirations and seriously inflated as regards its anticipated returns. Creative basic research and world-class teaching of the fundamentals are the greatest contributions to society twenty-first century universities can make.


RESOLUTION: Duke’s faculty and trustees ought not to allow the administration to move forward with this high-stakes initiative without first undertaking a robust and thorough public debate about the scholarly content of DKU and whether it justifies and, indeed, compels the university’s stakeholders to committing substantial resources and incurring grave financial risks associated with this venture.[1]  As part of that debate, alternatives models of international collaboration in teaching and research with China should also be given serious consideration.  At a minimum, this debate about DKU should focus on the three questions we have highlighted here:

  • What are the precise programs where a dedicated bricks-and-mortar campus in Kunshan under Duke’s management will yield educational and research related payoffs that justify Duke University’s heavy resource investment? What are the opportunity costs of dedicating resources to DKU rather than to more flexible alternative collaborative arrangements that may be more in tune with the spirit and technological capabilities of a twenty-first century wired world?

  • To what extent and how is Duke prepared to engage in the educational and organizational technology transfer the Chinese side is seeking by dedicating and training its core academic and managerial human capital to contribute to the success of the Kunshan project?

  • What are the financial risks the university is incurring by implementing this project and how does it hedge against losses due to much higher cost overruns than projected in the current planning document?


YOUR VOICE MATTERS: We therefore call on faculty and alumni to ask that the Board of Trustees institute a moratorium on financial commitments to the entire DKU initiative, until the faculty (represented by the Academic Council), the university administration, and the Board of Trustees will have reached a comprehensive agreement on the intrinsic merits, as well as the organizational and financial viability of all operational research- and education programs to be pursued on a dedicated Chinese DKU campus. For the duration of this review until the decision by Duke University’s stakeholders, the administration shall put on hold any ongoing contractual negotiations and refrain from negotiating or entering into any new commitments, financial or otherwise, related to DKU.  It should merely allow implementation of Phase 1 of DKU to move forward as far as current contractual obligations mandate doing so.

During the moratorium, a committee comprised of ECAC and some 4-6 independent senior faculty members (to be selected by the current Chair of ECAC from different branches of A&S) shall review the entire DKU initiative from the bottom up and closely scrutinize the plans of the academic units of the university that are to develop substantive educational and research content for the DKU campus. To empower faculty to devote sufficient time to these review activities, the committee members ought to be granted a half-time remittance of a one-year teaching load. Moreover, they should be equipped with two full-time lines of graduate student research assistance to engage in investigations and discovery pertinent to the viability of the DKU project independent of the information made available by the administration. The review committee should also be empowered to contract with external professionals to gain independent advice on the viability of the project.

The review, which ideally should begin July 1 of this year, is to be followed by a meeting of the entire review committee with the Board of Trustees, the President, the Provost, and the Dean of Fuqua in spring of 2012. At that point the Review Committee ought to present a thorough assessment of the entire DKU initiative. This document then should be the foundation for a consensus building process between faculty, represented through its Academic Council and the committee, the senior administration, and the Board of Trustees to identify promising educational program for a Chinese operation and agree on an organizational form for such activities.  Most important, the report of the review committee must explain in concrete and meaningful language—no more advertising jingles about the “global university” and Duke becoming the world’s “problem solver”—the operational purposes and desirable ends for the sake of which the DKU initiative should be pursued at all.  

We urge all those with a stake in the intellectual integrity, institutional reputation, and fiscal health of Duke University to contact President Brodhead, Provost Lange and, especially, the Board of Trustees in support of our resolution to put a moratorium on contractual commitments for the DKU campus.  Our sole aim is to restore a measure of badly needed wisdom and reflection before Duke takes on unprecedented and potentially disastrous risks to its academic reputation and financial viability.       


Thomas Pfau (Eads Family Professor of English & German)

Herbert Kitschelt (George V. Allen Professor of Political Science)


[1] Besides urging all interested and concerned parties to study the "Duke-Kunshan Planning Guide,” we also recommend an outstanding Agora position paper (“British Universities in China: the Reality beyond the Rhetoric”). - Additionally, we recommend a feasibility study of the Chinese Educational Market prepared specifically for Duke University by the China Market Research Group.  It casts grave doubts on the assumptions and projections of revenue flow, student interest, and a realistic tuition price point as currently set out in the official Duke-Kunshan University Planning Guide.