Dissent on the Home Front

June 6, 2011

Faculty members at Duke University’s business school expressed deep reservations at a meeting last week regarding the viability of what were supposed to be the first programs at the university’s new campus in Kunshan, China.

Following the recommendations of two committees convened to design the programs -- a master's of management science and an executive M.B.A. -- the faculty sent the M.M.S. program back to the drawing board, with the E.M.B.A. program’s fate contingent on a redesign of the M.M.S. The faculty decisions also put off a review by the full university faculty that has been scheduled for this month -- and those moves could jeopardize plans to open the China campus in fall 2012.

The decision is another blow to Duke’s plans to create a campus in China, and reinforces complaints that the university's administration pushed forward on the campus without faculty approval. Over the past year, faculty members and outside observers have criticized the university’s administration for pushing ahead on the program in the face of poor financial projections. They also have argued that faculty members have not been as involved in the planning process as they should have been.

Some of those critics said the rejection of the programs could be the death knell for the controversial plan, which has already been criticized as financially infeasible. Administrators and business school faculty say the decision will not kill the campus, but is just one step in a deliberative process that will make the China campus stronger and more viable and exactly the kind of discussion that critics say has been lacking from the project.

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"The faculty committees will be working over the summer with various university officials responsible for operations, finance, etc. to refine their proposals for further review in the fall," said a Duke spokesman, Michael Schoenfeld, in an e-mail. "This does not affect the schedule for the opening in fall 2012, and indeed will result in an even better program."

Duke is one of several colleges attempting to develop new campuses abroad that have run into objections from faculty, student, alumni, and outside groups. But the university's prominence and its ambitions to establish more campuses abroad have led to a particular interest in its efforts.

Thomas Pfau, a professor in the English department who has been a vocal critic of the Kunshan campus, said he thinks the decision from the meeting puts the entire plan for China in jeopardy and will make it unlikely to open by 2012. "The upshot of faculty deliberations at Fuqua [the business school] this past Wednesday is a sound and deserved rebuke to the reckless, inchoate, and high-handed approach taken by the senior administration to this entire initiative," Pfau said in an e-mail.

Planning documents for the Kunshan campus indicate that the original plan was to open the campus with a one-year M.M.S. program in fall 2012; the program would be taught by Duke faculty and cost the equivalent of the same program at the university’s Durham campus.

The main concerns expressed in the report about the M.M.S. program in China were that students would not be willing to pay a Western-level price for a program based entirely in China, that faculty members would not be willing to relocate for long periods of time to support the program, and that insufficient quality would compromise the university’s integrity. These conclusions were drawn from the committee’s own discussions with students and a consulting report on the program commissioned by the university.

“Given the apparent lack of interest in this program among potential students, the lack of enthusiasm among faculty for teaching in Kunshan for extended periods, the concerns about quality of the program, and the high cost of offering this program (particularly in light of Fuqua's uncertain financial position), we cannot recommend offering such a program at this time,” the M.M.S. report states. “However, given our uncertainty about some key issues – in particular, our ability to staff the courses and the implications of pursuing other alternatives (other program designs or doing nothing) – we do not recommend closing the door on the possibility of offering a full-year M.M.S. program based in Kunshan at this time.”

The reports also questioned the financial projections for the campus, which even in the most optimistic scenario would be losing money.

“The ‘bottom line' figure for the M.M.S. program is consistently negative, ranging from a loss of $2.6 million in its first year of operation (with 60 students) to a loss of $0.4M (with 170 students in the program),” the report states. “Because we believe the forecasts for the number of students and their ability to pay are optimistic (and section sizes to be too large), we view these bottom line figures to be quite optimistic, even though they are negative.”

Because of these concerns, the committee report proposed alternative programs that would require students to spend part of their time in the United States. Such programs address a major concern expressed by students who weren’t willing to pay U.S. prices without the opportunity to spend time in the U.S. such programs would also be easier to staff, the report says. But because they haven’t been thoroughly vetted by financial and logistics officials, or the Chinese government, the faculty could not recommend them. The committees also expressed concerns about whether there would be demand among students for such programs.

“As the latter options are newer ideas and subject to several unknowns, the committee recommended further time for fact finding, analysis, and deliberation,” said Mary Frances Luce, associate dean of faculty affairs for the business school, in an e-mail.

The committee examining the executive M.B.A. program considered two options: a stand-alone program and one tied to the M.M.S. program. The stand-alone program was deemed too similar to Duke's current offerings in China and too financially risky. Because of that finding, the school’s faculty also suspended the committee designing the program, which would have started in 2013.

Schoenfeld said the business school's programs are only one small component of Duke's global vision. The Duke Global Health Research Institute is developing degree and research programs to launch at the China campus next year, and a China planning group made up of members of different disciplines has been assembled to explore other long-term priorities for the campus.

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