Richard Brodhead chats with Duke Kunshan undergraduate students on March 21 after giving the first in a series of three lectures on early American history and U.S.-China educational exchanges.
After giving three lectures in two days on the birth and early evolution of the United States, starting with the Declaration of Independence, Richard H. Brodhead was clearly taken aback when an audience member compared him to the likes of Thomas Jefferson by calling him the “founding father” of Duke Kunshan University.
During the 13 years he served as president of Duke University, from 2004 to 2017, Brodhead led the establishment of many of the college’s best-known international programs, including Duke Kunshan – a joint venture with Wuhan University – and Duke-NUS in Singapore.
Yet far from seeing himself as chief architect, Brodhead is quick to share the credit.
“You have no idea how hilarious it is for me to be called a founding father,” he said, prompting laughter to ring around Duke Kunshan’s packed auditorium on March 22. “This was done through the joint labor of many people on two continents. It has been an amazing thing that has happened in my life.
“But it’s true, in my early life I never thought I’d be associated with the founding of a university, let alone that it would have the amazing success and prospects that this one has.”
Brodhead, now president emeritus of Duke and honorary chancellor of Duke Kunshan, played a key role in every chapter of the school’s creation. As a result, every time he visits the campus he is often surrounded by students, faculty and staff, all keen to learn from the renowned educator and rub shoulders with the man who helped make the DKU dream a reality.
Despite his accomplishments, however, Brodhead said he does not believe many Western universities would stick with such a complex project as setting up a joint venture in China.
“Just logistically, it’s far harder than it appears,” he said. “Students everywhere want something that existing education doesn’t always supply. They want something that prepares you for the versatility the future will require of students, something that propels you to link things together, something that gives you globalization as a dimension of the experience from the first day you enter class. Those are features of DKU, and that’s why we thought it was worth doing.”
Throughout the process, Brodhead took inspiration from the autobiography of Yung Wing (better known in China as Hong Rong), the first Chinese to graduate from an American college and a central figure in the third lecture, which focused on the early chapters in U.S.-China educational exchanges.
In 1847, Yung Wing sailed from his native Macao to New England, where he was enrolled in the Monson Academy, a Massachusetts prep school. He later attended Yale after his teacher found benefactors in the American South willing to cover the costs.
The scholar’s life story – which includes setting up the doomed Chinese Educational Mission in Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1870s – traces a path through a time of almost unprecedented mutual amity across foreign cultures and into a “dark valley littered with the wreckage of those high hopes,” according to Brodhead. It is perhaps an allegory for anyone who attempts a complicated, cross-cultural educational project.
“My work on this project [Duke Kunshan] has made me intensely interested in the history of this place, because there is so much more to the history than anyone really suspects,” Brodhead said. “There will be days when you think the world is against you, that it’s never going to work. That has been true of many chapters of history, but it was never the end of the story. It was just something that happened on the way to further developments.
“History has given me a sense of hope and patience,” he added.
By sharing the stories of Yung Wing and Anson Burlingame, an American statesman who went on to represent China’s Qing government in negotiations for treaties with the U.S. and several European powers, Brodhead’s third lecture showed that although national policies and international relations may ebb and flow, educational endeavors tend to pay off in the long run.
For example, the dream of the Chinese Educational Mission (CME) was to produce a creative, educated cadre of Chinese civil servants. After receiving approval from the Qing government, the school received four cohorts of students between 1872 and 1874, and before long they were making their way to major American universities, such as Yale, MIT, Harvard and Columbia. However, in 1881, following reports from Yung Wing’s co-director about the “disturbing Westernization of the students,” officials in Beijing terminated the project.
The students suffered humiliation upon their return and were able to land only entry-level civil service jobs at first. But over time, their abilities were welcomed and they became influential figures, such as Liang Cheng, a CME graduate who in 1902 was appointed China’s ambassador to the U.S.
In fact, after the violent Boxer Rebellion, Liang acted as China’s negotiator in 1908 when Washington agreed to establish the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, a move that helped send more than 1,000 Chinese students abroad for higher education. The program’s funds were initially used to build a prep school, which after years of development was renamed in 1929 as Tsinghua University, now one of China’s top universities.
“It’s more interesting to have your worldview opening up than to have your worldview stay closed within tight boundaries. Smart people from other countries can do that for us in a way no one can do for themselves,” Brodhead said.
“I think that it’s critical to have pockets of innovation and experimentation in higher education, and I’m very proud to be associated with one in Duke Kunshan. But if I come back in 20 years and there are 40 ‘DKUs’ in China, I will say, ‘Boy, I didn’t see that one coming.’
“And in a way, I don’t want there to be 40. I want you to be unique graduates,” he joked. “I want you to be able to tell your parents, just like Yung Wing told his mother, ‘I’m the only one. There aren’t many people as lucky as you to have a child as amazing as me.’ ”