The two leaders of Duke Kunshan University (DKU) say they've already started hearing from students interested in enrolling, more than a year before the campus opens its doors for classes in China.
"I've received inquiries from students in numerous provinces," said DKU's chancellor Liu Jiangnan, who today (Monday) will complete a five-day visit to Duke's campus in Durham. "Chinese families want their children to receive the best possible education. Until now, they thought they needed to send their children to the States. DKU offers an alternative -- an American model with a world-class faculty and administration."
"There's already a buzz about DKU," agreed Mary Brown Bullock, the former Agnes Scott College president and Emory University professor who will serve as DKU's executive vice chancellor. "I recently received a random email from a Chinese student in Suzhou. He asked when he could apply to DKU. I was astonished."
Liu and several colleagues arrived in Durham this past Wednesday evening for meetings with Duke officials and faculty members. He served previously as president of Wuhan University, which has partnered with Duke and the City of Kunshan to establish the new university on a 200-acre site between Shanghai and Suzhou.
"We've been very busy," since China's Ministry of Education granted preliminary approval for DKU in August, Bullock said. "We have teams working on financing, staffing and other issues, especially academic planning. We're still hoping to begin offering undergraduate exchanges in the spring semester of 2014 and graduate programs the following fall. We're seeing real momentum with the construction and expect the campus to be ready in 2013."
Despite rainy weather during much of his visit, Liu called Duke's home campus beautiful -- "seeing is believing" -- and he looked forward to visiting science classrooms, the business school and other sites. He also attended his first Duke basketball game on Sunday, saying he is "100 percent for the Blue Devils."
DKU is "really visionary, really wise and really pioneering," said Liu, an expert on geospatial imaging and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Speaking through a translator, he said, "What we're doing today will change higher education in China. It will be good not only for China but, in the end, for the whole world."
Faculty and students at the new university "will have academic freedom to air their opinions about any academic issue," Liu said. "They can criticize the policies of the Chinese government, such as about the one couple -- one baby policy or government economic policies. That's OK."
While he was the president of Wuhan, a leading Chinese university, Liu said he explored joint ventures with several U.S. universities and even looked at possible sites, but was never able to make a deal. When he stepped down as president in 2008, he looked forward to returning to his research and turned down offers to lead other Chinese universities. Then he learned of Duke's plans to establish a different kind of university in Kunshan. "I'm the kind of person that the more challenging the work is, the more I like to take it," he says.
"My story is similar to Chancellor Liu's," says Bullock, who earned her Ph.D. in Chinese history at Stanford in the late 1970s and has been at the forefront of academic relations between the two nations ever since through leading foundations and NGOs. "I didn't think I wanted to be a college president again. I was enjoying teaching and writing. But DKU is the most exciting endeavor in higher education. It responds to the ambitions of both countries and could have a transformative effect on Duke and in the United States, as well as in China."
Bullock and Liu have met and traveled together in China over the past several months, working with colleagues from both nations, and they view their strengths as complementary. He is a Chinese scientist who oversaw significant growth in the size and stature of the faculty at a large university, where he fostered interdisciplinary study and educational innovation. She is an American historian who ran a liberal arts college for more than a decade and held prominent positions at some of the country's top academic and nonprofit institutions. He can help decipher China's government and bureaucracy, while she knows U.S. higher education. Already they have begun to finish each other's sentences.
"Given my long interest in China and my higher education background, I thought this opportunity is almost too good to be true," Bullock told a visitor on Thursday afternoon.
"New challenge," Liu interrupted, in English.
"Yes, a new challenge," she laughed, "and I was ready."