Announcement of the President of Yale-NUS College

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
University Town, National University of Singapore
30 May 2012


President Tan Chorh Chuan, President Richard Levin, distinguished guests, esteemed colleagues:

I am deeply honored to accept the position of President of Yale-NUS College. It is an extraordinary privilege to have the opportunity to lead this new College as we reimagine undergraduate education for the 21st century. I am indebted to the Governing Board for the confidence they have placed in me. I am also grateful for the visionary leadership offered by President Tan and President Levin, who undertook this unique partnership between two of the world’s great universities, and for the efforts of so many both in Singapore and at Yale in bringing this project forward.

In particular, the strong support and commitment of the government of Singapore has been essential. Prime Minister Lee has noted that the distinctiveness of a liberal arts education, and its goal of developing students who can think broadly and rigorously and make connections across different domains of knowledge “will be valuable for Singapore in a more complex and inter-connected world”.

I would like to speak to you today about my vision of the education that Yale-NUS will offer: our liberal arts and sciences education, our global curriculum and programs, and our efforts to create a living and learning community.

First, what is liberal arts education? The word “liberal” refers historically to what was most important for an educated person, free of other responsibilities to study. So, the liberal arts are closely aligned with freedom – the freedom to pursue intellectual questions wherever scholarship takes us and the freedom to debate issues of current concern. The goals of a liberal arts education have long been to teach students to analyze carefully, to communicate effectively, and to make wise and humane decisions. The word “arts” refers historically not just to the visual or performing arts but to the whole range of human knowledge, from music to physics and beyond.

Yale-NUS College will offer a liberal arts and science education that is updated for the 21st century.  That means giving students the breadth of knowledge to expand their minds and to be able to ask important questions in any field of endeavor, as well as the rigorous training in one field that teaches them how to pursue a subject in depth. I expect our students to master a body of knowledge and techniques, but I also want them to be able to approach and solve problems from many different angles.

Take, for example, the study of the environment; specifically the impact of the shrimp farms on mangrove forests in Southeast Asia; over a third of the world’s mangrove forests have disappeared in the last two decades, largely as a result of clearing the forests for shrimp farming. These farms bring economic benefits to employees and consumers, but the disappearing mangrove forests provide essential qualities like biodiversity and a buffer against events like tsunamis. How do we address issues like these? Clearly, knowledge of botany and climatology is essential; but the management of the resources of the sea is also a matter of social norms, and changing people’s relationship to those resources involves the question of humans’ relationship to the natural world, which may be shaped by religious belief or historical tradition.

Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS will draw on scientific, social-scientific, and humanistic knowledge to help address this kind of challenging, multidimensional question. This is just one of many examples of how the world functions in an interdisciplinary manner; our educational system needs to address not just specialized technical knowledge but the connections among the various disciplines.

My vision of a liberal arts and science education for the 21st century brings the span of human knowledge together and allows students to develop their capacities to the fullest by encouraging active learning. For me, this is closely related to a second point about Yale-NUS College, its development of a Global Curriculum, drawing on Asian, Western, and other perspectives.

While the words “liberal arts” come from the Western tradition, the type of active learning that we encourage is familiar from Asia as well. The Chinese philosopher Mencius wrote in the 4th century BC, of the goals of education: “A gentleman teaches in five ways: the first is by a transforming influence like that of timely rain. The second is by helping the student to realize his virtue to the full. The third is by helping him to develop his talent. The fourth is by answering his questions. And the fifth is by setting an example others not in contact with him can emulate. These five are the ways in which a gentleman teaches.”  We have sought out wonderful professors—ladies as well as gentlemen!—who will be joining our faculty and who are eager to encourage active learning in the context of a global curriculum for the young women and men who will be our students.

At Yale-NUS College, we will provide a cosmopolitan education, in which students explore not only their own cultural backgrounds, but also the great contributions of cultures from around the world.

Yale-NUS College, through its curriculum, its programs, and its community, will contribute to deeper understanding between Singapore and the United States, and more broadly between Asia and the West, in a century when such understanding is going to be crucial to all forms of progress.

Finally, living and learning.  In my own undergraduate days, I lived in a rather impersonal dormitory at McGill University as a single resident along an extended hallway of unconnected rooms.  It was only when I went to Stanford as a graduate student and lived in the Hammarskjold International Student Co-op that I encountered for the first time the intellectual, spiritual, and temporal benefits that obtain from being a member of a true community of living and learning.  [It is also where I met my wife, Sheila Hayre, who is here with me.]  As a professor at Yale and a fellow of Calhoun College, one of Yale’s twelve residential colleges, I have had the great pleasure of getting to know students on their first day of university and staying in touch with them through their four years of study and onward into their careers. The residential model we are building at Yale-NUS College will enhance the educational experience. Indeed, we are creating an extraordinary environment where the lines between learning and living blur, where the intentional learning in the seminar room or the lab will be amplified and augmented by the more serendipitous – but equally important – learning that takes place in the dining hall, or a study session, or in a club meeting. We hope that the ideas and debates sparked by their Yale-NUS education will shape their lives for many years to come.  This is what we mean by creating a living and learning community.

The great political philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, in 1848, “It is hardly possible to overstate the value…of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar…. Such communication has always been…one of the primary sources of progress.” These words are equally true in our age. The best hope for the future leadership of a rapidly changing world lies in the continued exchange of ideas and knowledge, which is the essence of a liberal education. That is my vision. And that is what we will accomplish at Yale-NUS College.

It is a great pleasure to me to announce the two Executive Vice-Presidents who will join me on the leadership team of Yale-NUS.

Lai Choy Heng, Executive Vice-President for Academic Affairs, is a physicist who has done influential research on quantum computing and has also served NUS as Dean and Vice-Provost.  He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and has, in addition to his expertise in physics, a wide-ranging knowledge of Western classical and jazz music. Choy Heng will be leading our academic programs. I have already, in the last few months since meeting him, come to rely on Choy Heng’s deep knowledge of the National University of Singapore, honed over three decades of service to the university. He is himself a true embodiment of the values of liberal arts education, and it is notable that his son followed in his footsteps at the University of Chicago, where he majored in Computer Science and English. I can think of no one more well suited than Choy Heng to adapting the liberal arts model to the Singaporean context.

Doris Sohmen-Pao, Executive Vice-President for Administration, is an expert and skilled practitioner in the field of human capital development. Doris studied Politics and Environmental Studies at Princeton before getting her MBA at Harvard. At Princeton, she received the award for outstanding leadership by an undergraduate and went on to serve on the board of trustees as a young alumna. Doris will lead our administrative efforts. Already in the first few months of her appointment, Doris has brought great energy to the staff of 30 who have been working night and day to make this college a reality. Her understanding of both of liberal arts and education in the United States, and of Singapore where she has lived for twelve years, is unparalleled. She spoke very movingly to our first group of admitted undergraduates of the role liberal arts education played in her own life, and I am delighted to have her acumen in business and administrative matters at the service of the educational ideals we all share.

One of the lessons we will underscore for our students is the importance of collaboration and teamwork to maximize the success of almost any venture—and Choy Heng, Doris, and I will be modeling the same sense of teamwork that we want our students to pursue. It is deeply satisfying that the Yale-NUS leadership team includes a professor from each of our partner universities—Yale and NUS—as well as someone who has had such extensive experience in the world of business and academic administration.

I cannot let this moment pass without saluting and thanking Lily Kong, who in her role on the team that studied the liberal arts initiative and then as Acting Executive Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Yale-NUS, has done more than anyone else to bring this partnership so far, so fast. And Lily has been a good friend and mentor to me personally. Fortunately, Lily will continue to advise us on this project as she resumes her role in the broader NUS administration. I am also very grateful to my friend and colleague Charles Bailyn, Professor of Astronomy at Yale, for his continued work as Dean of the Faculty. Charles has shaped the curriculum and recruited the faculty, and one of the great pleasures of this job for me will be continuing our work together.

Yale-NUS College will, I believe, allow students to develop their full potential. Our students will challenge conventional wisdom and will contribute to progress here in Singapore and throughout the world. I am humbled indeed to be able to make my contribution to this great adventure.