Giving to Duke

In the four decades since it opened itself to the world and emerged as the fastest-growing economy on the planet, China has sought to diversify its educational system at all levels. The opportunity to engage with Chinese students and scholars on important issues has been especially alluring to higher education, with more than 2,300 cooperative academic projects established in China. Of these, only a handful are fully integrated universities with American partners, and only one with a top-10 U.S. college: Duke Kunshan University.

How did Duke get so far ahead of the curve? It took vision, leadership, the steadfast support of two key partners in China, and a willingness to be innovative and take risks. Duke Kunshan’s success is due to several factors. First is the close partnership between Duke, the City of Kunshan and Wuhan University. This arrangement enables Duke to balance proven educational methods, cultural differences and norms, and innovative interdisciplinary experimentation. Second is Duke Kunshan’s dual-degree structure which offers undergraduate students the opportunity to earn both a Chinese degree from Duke Kunshan and an American degree from Duke University. Third is the opportunity to learn in an interdisciplinary, intimate, liberal arts environment. Duke Kunshan’s undergraduate curriculum was developed entirely from scratch — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Duke faculty who participated in its creation.

“The faculty share a common passion for this project. They really like the idea that they are part of a diverse, truly global university,” said Denis Simon, Duke Kunshan’s executive vice chancellor. “They like the idea of building it, developing it and watching it come to fruition in terms of the kind of graduates it produces. And they’re invested in the idea of Duke Kunshan as a highly interdisciplinary, very innovative liberal arts and sciences university in China.”

Chinese text meaning the road to China
The Road to China

Duke’s journey to Kunshan began in the early 2000s. Duke University’s global aspirations were evolving in a series of partner programs across several schools and countries, including the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School (Duke-NUS) and The Fuqua School of Business’ plan for a network of international nodes. At the same time that Duke was considering opportunities in China, the City of Kunshan was solidifying its reputation as a tech and light manufacturing center with a tremendous interest in urbanization and a prime location between two of China’s largest cities, Shanghai and Suzhou. Best known as the home of the Kun Opera, Kunshan’s leaders were seeking to make an impact on the education sector by building a university to complement and expand the city’s potential as a center of innovation. They wanted a liberal arts university that would bring together the best of the East and West.

The Chinese government has a program known as a “Sino-foreign joint venture” which facilitates partnerships between international universities and Chinese universities to modernize the nation’s higher education system. The program requires international universities to have a partner, in the same way as business agreements. The Sino-foreign joint venture program opened the door for the collaboration between Duke and Wuhan University, a leading Chinese institution that is Duke’s academic partner in Duke Kunshan. Meanwhile, the city of Kunshan supplied land, funding and a deep commitment to the innovative spirit that would become Duke Kunshan University.

Duke Kunshan’s careful planning has resulted in a place where the greatest challenges in China and the world are tackled each day.

Building a new university also requires persistence and creativity, as well as an experienced and strategic leadership team. Duke Kunshan had both from the start. On the Duke side, President Richard Brodhead and Provost Peter Lange were instrumental in advancing the idea, and later the proposal, for Duke Kunshan University. This required support and engagement from Duke faculty, administrative departments, and the university’s Board of Trustees. Numerous Duke faculty and trustees with experience and expertise working in and with China provided valuable advice for assessing the unique opportunity for Duke to partner in creating a new university.

Noted China historian and former Agnes Scott College president Mary Bullock was recruited to be the first executive vice chancellor, providing steady academic vision. Duke Kunshan received another critical boost through its first chancellor, Liu Jingnan, who had previously served as president of Wuhan University as part of his distinguished career in Chinese higher education and scientific research.

Chinese text for a blank slate
A Blank Slate

Both Chancellor Liu and Duke’s leaders knew from experience that master’s degree programs can be created more quickly than undergraduate programs. And they saw clear overlapping priority areas where they could quickly bring faculty expertise to bear in building academic and research programs. In part through Liu’s reputation and influence, the Chinese Ministry of Education allowed Duke Kunshan University to proceed with the unusual step of beginning with graduate programs before moving to the more complicated and costly undergraduate programs.

Duke Kunshan’s unconventional start-up years featured master’s degrees in global health, medical physics, environmental policy and management studies, all of which are subjects of great expertise at Duke. Each of these areas is critically important in China as well. Internationally respected faculty were brought on to lead the programs, such as Duke professors Shenglan Tang and Junjie Zhang, who lead Duke Kunshan’s research programs in global health and the environment, respectively.Professors such as Wayne Norman are enthusiastically signing up to take part in Duke Kunshan’s interdisciplinary curriculum.

This first phase also included a unique undergraduate study program called the Global Learning Semester (GLS). This was a popular experimental program bringing together undergraduates from top Chinese, American and other universities. The GLS offered a wide array of courses taught by a number of Duke’s world-class faculty members who volunteered to make the trip.

Evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare, best known for his work on the social adaptations of dogs and bonobos, was among the first cohort of GLS instructors in 2014. Hare brought along his trademark creative, high-energy teaching style and his research assistant, Jingzhi “Hippo” Tan. Wen Zhou, then a junior at Beijing Normal University, took Hare’s class in the GLS program and was captivated. She knew immediately that the path to her career goals should go through evolutionary anthropology.

“I checked the list of courses offered at Duke Kunshan and saw Brian’s name. I knew he was an expert in primatology and that he studied cognition,” Wen said. “After my time at Duke Kunshan I stayed in contact with Brian and Hippo. When I graduated from Normal, I applied to Duke. Hippo helped me a lot with my application.” Now in the second year of her Ph.D. program with Hare, Wen expects to complete her Duke doctoral degree in the next three years or so, followed by teaching and research in China and the U.S.

Chinese text for paving the way for success
Paving the Way for Success

The quick popularity of Duke Kunshan’s graduate programs and research paved the way for the successful launch of the undergraduate degree program. The school received 3,200 applications – more than twice what was expected — for 250 spots in the inaugural year. With an ultimate goal of enrolling 60 percent of undergraduates from China and 40 percent from the rest of the world, the quality of the applicant pool rivaled the best American universities. The number of students per class is expected to increase to 500 per year by 2021.

Among the Duke faculty and administrators closely involved with Duke Kunshan, the opportunity to create an entirely new interdisciplinary curriculum approached Holy Grail status: Most people never get such a chance. They were free to imagine the best way to teach the subject matter that would help students address the thorniest global problems. The innovative curriculum design, led by associate provost Noah Pickus, produced a list of interdisciplinary majors rather than the traditional narrow path to a degree. Instead, Duke Kunshan has a well-rounded set of objectives to educate students with an integrated curriculum that highlights the best of liberal arts education. A unique aspect of the curriculum is the signature work that each student produces, which can include partnerships with private companies, government agencies, cultural organizations and research entities. Signature work enables every student to get hands-on experience in applying knowledge to real-world issues.

Duke Kushan students gathered around a laptop

Unlike most other new universities, graduate students were the first to enter Duke Kunshan University, laying the groundwork for its research reputation.

The curriculum plan was presented to Duke’s faculty Academic Council, which endorsed it as reflecting the quality and expectations for Duke degrees. An advisory board of Chinese educators also strongly endorsed it. “Duke Kunshan is well underway to becoming a leading higher education institution in China,” said Duke provost Sally Kornbluth, who also chairs the university’s Board of Trustees. “We have the intellectual capital and creativity to establish a world-class university of which Duke will be proud, and that provides unique opportunities for mutual exchange and benefit among Duke, Wuhan and Duke Kunshan.”

Meanwhile, outstanding teachers and scholars from around the world sought to be a part of Duke Kunshan’s charter faculty. The first cohort of 22 professors came from more than 1,300 applicants, and another 1,500 have applied to join the faculty in the latest recruitment. An academic world with no traditional disciplinary boundaries, located in a rapidly evolving country, is an incredibly exciting prospect. Professors are just as eager as students to participate in this exciting and ambitious enterprise.

The undergraduate college includes a major physical expansion, nearly tripling the size of the campus to include new classroom, research, student life and athletics facilities. It is expected to be completed around 2021, ending a decade-long process of transformation for what was once only farmland.

But even with a thriving university in place, what can Duke Kunshan expect to accomplish in a country of 1.4 billion people? Quite a bit, actually. The university is ideally located in the world’s largest economy and the epicenter of several of the world’s most difficult challenges. High-level studies aimed to address communicable diseases and the negative health effects of environmental pollutants could contribute tremendously to improving public health worldwide. Shenglan Tang’s work has important health implications in China. Tang leads a large consortium of universities, hospitals and public health agencies in a multiyear study of a new model for tuberculosis care and control. The study is supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Meanwhile, Duke Kunshan faculty member Jim Zhang published a major study connecting the effects of ozone pollution to cardiovascular disease.

Chinese text for the complete package
The Complete Package

After several years of close collaboration, the City of Kunshan and Duke understand how the partnership is not just a win-win, but is beneficial for China as a whole, for Wuhan University and for global higher education in general. These successes are possible because Duke has a fully realized, highly visible, permanent presence in China, not just a collection of programs. “What we’re doing is qualitatively and quantitatively different,” said Jim Dobbins, Duke associate vice provost and director of the Office of Duke Kunshan Programs. “We’re looking at not just being globally active, but globally engaged and globally embedded. That’s something you can only get from the scope and scale of building a full campus.”

The immediate result is a magnet for experimentation with educational methods and interdisciplinary research. Duke Kunshan University’s small student-to-faculty ratio allows Chinese students the opportunity to attend an elite university were they can establish personal relationships with faculty and fellow students. They earn an American degree without leaving their home country, and can hope to immediately contribute to solving China’s — and the world’s — biggest challenges. It’s the guiding principle that Duke Kunshan calls “rooted globalism.”

A view of a building that is part of the facilities of Duke Kunshan

The facilities at Duke Kunshan are in place for a major research university located in the world’s largest economy.

International and American students can immerse themselves simultaneously in Duke Kunshan’s unique curriculum and Chinese culture while pursuing Duke and Duke Kunshan degrees. It’s an experience that expands Duke’s and Duke Kunshan’s reputations, and benefits Duke by enhancing global perspectives among students and faculty.

In an international social and political climate that is often fraught, Duke Kunshan University has progressed in a little more than a decade from an ambitious vision to a beacon of light. “If you’re going to achieve something valuable in the world, it takes risk,” Dobbins said. “Risks that are well-considered are the things that will distinguish you from your peers. Duke is a place where we do that.”

Simon, the executive vice chancellor, understands the critical significance of the opportunity in Kunshan. Having made his first trip to China in 1981, he has been involved in launching numerous high-profile education, research and business projects in the country for more than three decades. A specialist in the study of the Chinese research and development system, Simon has played a pivotal leadership role in translating Duke Kunshan from a concept on paper into a fully functional, high-quality global university.

“Duke Kunshan University enables Duke to expand research collaborations in science, technology, society, the arts and the humanities,” Simon said. “It creates a site for innovative pedagogical experimentation. And it establishes a platform for Duke to be a major player in the evolution of higher education in Asia and throughout the world. In turn, Kunshan attracts a creative class of scientists, poets, artists and social analysts who are crucial to driving their knowledge economy strategy.”

The overarching idea, as it has been since Duke Kunshan’s launch, is to create the best research and liberal arts education possible. Simply put, Duke Kunshan is designed to conduct research and provide educational opportunities in China that are important to China and to the rest of the world.


Since James B. Duke endowed the university in 1924, Duke has maintained a commitment to need-blind admissions and need-based aid. This means that Duke admits students based on merit, regardless of their ability to pay, and awards financial aid based on demonstrated need. Need-blind admissions is not currently feasible at Duke Kunshan because it is a new institution and lacks an endowment. To support the best and brightest students from all over the world, Duke Kunshan seeks to raise $23 million in undergraduate scholarships by June 2019. Philanthropic giving can play an important role in advancing Duke Kunshan’s ability to offer financial assistance to a wider array of students.

In 2017, the cost of supporting need-based undergraduate financial aid in Durham was $110 million. Financial aid is consistently one of Duke’s single largest annual expenses. That’s because each student on financial aid receives an average of $45,000 of support annually. But without dedicated donors, this level of support is unsustainable.

Carry on our founder’s tradition. Give to financial aid to ensure the world’s best students always have the resources to attend Duke Kunshan, no matter their family’s financial status.


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