Universities of the future: How Duke Kunshan University is driving global innovation | TopMBA.com

Universities of the future: How Duke Kunshan University is driving global innovation

By Nunzio Quacquarelli

Updated March 8, 2024 Updated March 8, 2024

With hundreds, if not thousands, of top universities around the world offering high-quality education experiences, innovation is an essential component for universities looking to offer something distinctive and unique to prospective applicants.

Duke Kunshan University is a perfect example of an institution which is building a brand-new approach to high-quality education, with a focus on interdisciplinary global collaboration at the heart of its curriculum.

To learn more, we spoke to Professor John Quelch, Executive Vice Chancellor of Duke Kunshan University. Professor Quelch is an Emeritus Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School and has been Dean of a number of top-tier institutions including London Business School, University of Miami Herbert Business School and the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.

Why is an Emeritus Professor of Marketing at Harvard and former Dean of London Business School running a new university in China? 

I love building institutions and transformational challenges. In the world of universities, DKU is an entrepreneurial start-up. This is an opportunity I could not pass up.

Duke Kunshan University is a joint venture between Duke University of North Carolina,which QS  ranks eighteenth in the US, and Wuhan University, a top-10 university in China. Kunshan, thirty miles from Shanghai, is a prosperous city principally known for high-tech manufacturing. 

As is common in these joint ventures, the city of Kunshan has contributed generously 83 acres of land and 28 new buildings. The two university partners are helping DKU build out our academic programs to create a world-class university that all stakeholders can be proud of.

What is the focus of Duke Kunshan University in China?

Duke Kunshan University is a small and highly selective liberal arts and science university, committed to curriculum innovation through interdisciplinarity, which I believe is essential for twenty-first century higher education.

We offer a four-year undergraduate programme and have graduated classes in 2022 and 2023. In addition, we offer five master's programmes (all students study at Duke as well as DKU and earn Duke degrees):

  • Environmental policy and climate change
  • Global Public Health
  • Medical physics (radiography, particularly in oncology)
  • Management studies 
  • Electrical and Computational Engineering 

What is the profile of candidates you are targeting for DKU and why are you able to be so selective?

Of the 500 freshmen who will be admitted this year, roughly 70 percent will be Chinese and 30 percent non-Chinese. Currently we have 65 countries represented on campus and this year we've received 10,000 applications. 

Why is that? First, our curriculum is highly innovative curriculum and very different from most offered by a typical Chinese university. There is a core interdisciplinary curriculum that consists of three very interesting custom designed courses that all the students have to take. 

One is called global challenges in science, technology and health. A second is ethics, leadership and the examined life (which includes a measure of introspection), and the third is China in the World. 

Beyond the required courses, we do not have departments, we have three divisions: Social Sciences, Natural and Applied Sciences, and Arts and Humanities. We allow students to explore across these areas before selecting their majors.

In addition, there is a required quantitative reasoning course. There is a requirement to study a non-native language (English or Chinese). Finally, every student must complete a “signature” piece of work/dissertation in collaboration with a faculty member.

A second reason for our rapid success is our excellent placement outcomes. Over 85 percentof our graduates from the undergraduate programme go on to top QS-ranked graduate schools all over the world. We had six go to Harvard, we had eight to Columbia, and we also had a Rhodes Scholar accepted to Oxford University. News of these successful outcomes spread like wildfire in China and perhaps explain why we are receiving so many applications. Both our international application and Chinese applications are up 40% this year.

What are your plans for DKU to really make a difference?

Small liberal arts colleges make their impact not through of the number of students graduated but their quality. Our graduates will become leaders who will to make an impact on many more people’s lives.

On top of the outstanding undergraduate liberal arts programme as a foundation, we now have to build out the university by introducing more graduate programmes and more researchactivity that will bring in grant money from the Chinese and local governments.

We will aim for intellectual leadership in arenas where global collaboration is critical to success. Building on our environmental policy and global health master's degrees, we are looking to become thought leaders in these and other related areas.

How is DKU fostering international collaboration between Duke University and Wuhan University, as well as with other universities?

We have a tremendous asset in having the entire faculty of both Duke University and Wuhan University at our fingertips. We are already acting as a convening hub for scholars from those two universities and beyond. 

Last November, for example, we hosted a significant conference on international environmental policy and, more recently, an international conference of academics on soft matter (defined by our physics faculty as anything that goes through an airport scanner that the scanner cannot pick up). 

We are at the centre of a triangle that pulls together the resources of Duke, Wuhan and the Kunshan business ecosystem to develop breakthrough research that is both globally and locally relevant. As I have often said: “All great global brands are also great local brands.”


This article was originally published in March 2024 .

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