Inaugural VCAA: We mixed the best of East and West to build Duke Kunshan | Duke Kunshan University

Inaugural VCAA: We mixed the best of East and West to build Duke Kunshan

July 5, 2019


Haiyan Gao, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural vice chancellor for academic affairs

Haiyan Gao, Duke Kunshan’s inaugural vice chancellor for academic affairs (VCAA), knows firsthand that combining the strengths of East and West can yield amazing success. After all, she’s a prime example of such success.

After growing up in China and graduating from Tsinghua University in the late 1980s, Dr. Gao continued her education in the United States, obtaining a Ph.D. before launching a career that has seen her work with a range of influential societies and institutions, including Duke University.

In January 2015, she returned to China to join Duke Kunshan, bringing with her a wealth of expertise in China-U.S. collaboration and cross-cultural exchanges.

“When you bring together the strengths of East and West, the effect can be enormous. It can be very powerful,” said Dr. Gao, who stepped down as VCAA on June 30 to return to Duke, where she is the Henry Newson Professor of Physics, to focus on research and teaching.

It is this East-meets-West philosophy that has helped Dr. Gao drive the rapid expansion of Duke Kunshan’s teaching and research capacity, as well as put in place an academic framework that has attracted high-quality faculty.

As an internationally renowned nuclear physicist with experience on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, she has used her expertise to build the university’s academic profile and offerings, and created innovative education concepts and talent development models for the 21st century.

“When we were developing our different policies, we’d start by looking at what policies Duke has, but we didn’t stop there,” she said. “We’d also look at universities across the U.S. And as we’re a university in China, we’d also look at Chinese universities, and not only Wuhan University but others including Tsinghua.

“We were taking the best of both worlds – East and West – and combining them to make the right policy for DKU,” she added. “In fact, I remember one particular policy, we realized that a university that may not sound as prestigious as Harvard or Stanford actually had a very good policy. So we studied it thoroughly and contacted that university to see if we could adopt it, which we did.”

Over the past four and a half years, Dr. Gao has had a lot of practice in formulating policies, having led the launch of Duke Kunshan’s innovative undergraduate degree program, two new graduate programs – the international master of environmental policy (iMEP) and the master of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) – and 10 research centers covering fields including the environment and humanities.

She also led the establishment of the university’s tenure system, which is essential to building and retaining a world-class faculty. When classes start in the fall, Duke Kunshan will have 87 full-time faculty members, with nine tenured professors and 50 more on a tenure track.

“I grew up in China, which means I should be modest, but I’ve really done so much,” she joked, before stressing that these accomplishments were the result of contributions from many people. “We’ve put a lot of effort into our programs to make sure they’re innovative and sustainable in terms of academic offering, and into recruiting faculty to make sure we offer them something exciting and unique.

“Being able to launch the undergraduate program, getting all the applications and recruiting so many faculty, and all the research centers and research support structure, the whole academic framework, it’s been great,” she said. “We have a director of faculty affairs who has been here for almost two years, we have a Center for Teaching and Learning, and much more. When they see this, sometimes people are a little surprised to learn we’re only a young university.”


Dr. Gao prepares for the Class of 2019 graduation ceremony in May with Chancellor Youmei Feng and Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon

Denis Simon, executive vice chancellor at Duke Kunshan, said the institution owes a great deal of gratitude to Dr. Gao. “She set the tone for building out the type of high-caliber, highly interdisciplinary liberal arts program we aspire to achieve,” he said.

Chancellor Youmei Feng also praised Dr. Gao’s rich experience in teaching, research and management, as well as her great knowledge of Chinese and American cultures. “She has made a far-reaching contribution to Duke Kunshan’s academics, research and future development, and brought this new university to life,” she added. “We will greatly miss her wise counsel and thoughtful leadership.”

For Dr. Gao, becoming the inaugural VCAA at Duke Kunshan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was also a chance to return to Kunshan, where she spent part of her childhood.

Shortly after Dr. Gao was born, her mother, an engineer by training, was assigned to work in northern China, while her father’s job was in Shanghai. She split her time between the two until the early 1970s, when her mother was transferred to Kunshan.

Dr. Gao studied at an elementary school in Kunshan for about three years before she was transferred to a school in Shanghai for fifth to 12th grade.

“Kunshan wasn’t a city then, it was a small county,” she said. “Downtown had a movie theater, a bookstore, a school and a few stone-paved streets, like an old water town. The rest was countryside and villages. To travel to downtown Kunshan from my mother’s workplace we had three options: by foot, by bike or by boat.”

After briefly returning to Kunshan in the summer of 1984 – “on the three hottest days of the year” – to take the gaokao, China’s national college entrance exam, it was about a decade before Dr. Gao had another opportunity to revisit the city in the early ’90s.

“By then, it had already changed a lot. There were cars and new roads, and you could travel to different parts of Kunshan from downtown by car.”

‘I wanted to pay something back’

Dr. Gao aced the gaokao and was enrolled at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities. Upon graduation, she moved to the U.S., where she obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). She went on to hold positions at the Argonne National Laboratory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) before joining Duke’s Physics Department in 2002.

In the run-up to the establishment of Duke Kunshan, Dr. Gao – who was appointed chair of Duke’s Physics Department in 2011 – was asked to join the China Faculty Council, which had more than a dozen members and provided advice on the joint-venture university.

“I’d been traveling to China for physics conferences and workshops, so when Duke became serious about the DKU project, I became fascinated,” she said.

Dr. Gao later chaired the faculty council for two years, during which she appointed a subcommittee to look at the research potential of Duke Kunshan. A lot of the research activities now ongoing at the university came from proposals made by that group, she said.

“I think it was through my work with the council that people began to appreciate what I could contribute to Duke Kunshan, and I think they perhaps realized that the inaugural VCAA needed to be someone who understands Duke and China, and knows how to build academic programs and a strong faculty. So people started to talk with me.”

However, convincing Dr. Gao to leave her family and research behind in Durham, North Carolina, was no simple task.

“It was not a small decision, so it took me a long time to think about,” she said. “But I’m the kind of person who believes you have to pay something back. Duke has been good to me, it’s given me strong support in my career, and I have roots in China – I benefited from a free and excellent education at Tsinghua. I wanted to pay something back.

“Also, one question I asked myself was, ‘If I decide not to come, will I regret it down the road?’ Certainly, I do not regret the decision that I made. It was the right decision. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, both personally and professionally.”


Dr. Gao delivers the opening remarks at Duke Kunshan’s first TEDx event in April

In addition to her administrative role at Duke Kunshan, Dr. Gao has also applied her academic expertise to taking global research on experimental physics to the next level, including taking part in a study led by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore the significance of building an electron ion collider in the U.S.

After returning to Duke, Dr. Gao will focus on teaching as well as her research into the structure of the proton and the neutron and the search for quantum chromodynamics exotic states.

“I am part of a challenging, long-term research project that’s very expensive. We’re looking at a cost of more than $60 million and a time frame of over a decade. That’s a major focus, but I also have a number of other exciting projects that are smaller but still very challenging. Research is important to me because working with students on projects is a joy.”

Yet leaving behind the China-U.S. joint venture, where she has worked so hard to combine the strengths of East and West, won’t be easy, she said.

“I’m so proud of what I have helped create here in Kunshan. While it will be hard to step away, I look forward to watching the university continue to grow and flourish.”