The Encyclopedia of Yale-NUS College

Speech by Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
Yale-NUS College Student Town Hall
09 March 2017, Yale-NUS College

Students, friends, and colleagues,

Many of you may be aware that I am working on a magnum opus, The History of Yale-NUS College, tentatively scheduled for publication at the 25th reunion of our first graduating class in May, 2042, when like Tennyson’s Ulysses I will be an aged and idle king looking back at the kingdom he once ruled. That work is already starting to resemble the Encyclopedia of Tlön, the fictional universe that somehow becomes real in Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius.” It will contain irrefutable answers to questions that may or may not have occurred to you about the reasons and negotiations behind the founding of Yale-NUS College and about a variety of adventures along the way, along with my candid opinions about colleagues, donors, and government officials alike. The early drafts contained detailed blow-by-blow accounts of faculty meetings and interviews with the Wall Street Journal, but I took some time off during our break and worked on the most recent draft, which takes a longer view. Today, my scope is more modest, but I will offer five encyclopedia entries and pose three questions for discussion.  I am very happy to discuss other questions but these are the ones most on my mind as I too near my graduation date.

Entry 1. Students

One of the great joys of working at Yale-NUS College is you: the students. I remember the first Experience Yale-NUS Weekends where we were recruiting students to a College that did not yet have a campus, a faculty, or a president. We had no idea who would come. But in the end we have attracted excellent students from over 50 countries around the world, and many of you have turned down great opportunities at universities and colleges all over the world to be here. One of the things I like most about our students is your willingness to take a risk by coming to a relatively new institution, and whether for this reason or for reasons of luck or collective effervescence, we have students who have done amazing things, notably building up student organizations and residential college life and contributing to your own learning by helping the faculty with the development of the curriculum.

Entry 2. Faculty and Staff

Like the students, the faculty and staff have all taken something of a risk to be here. It may seem that the risk is greater for those of mature years who gave up tenure at other great institutions to come here, but in fact the biggest commitment was by the youngest faculty who decided to stake their careers on a new institution. Likewise, staff in all fields have helped us get from start-up to something approaching steady state through a very intense five years. I am honoured to work with people of such commitment, intelligence, and energy.

Entry 3. Curriculum

I first got involved in Yale-NUS College because I was excited about developing a new curriculum. Working with an amazing group of colleagues, I encouraged the faculty to ask “what must a young person learn in order to live a responsible life in this century?” There has undoubtedly been a certain amount of trial and error over the past four years, but I think that our efforts have resulted in a distinctive common curriculum that does prepare our students well for their further studies and for life beyond Yale-NUS. I believe that the thriving intellectual and social debates in the College reflect the impact of this curriculum on our “community of learning.”

Entry 4. Extra-curricular and residential life

From life in the residential colleges to student orgs to learning across boundaries experiences all across the world, we are building a very distinctive community. In one of my first speeches as president, I referred to “the sports, clubs, societies, musical groups, and student publications that create a lively civil society in parallel with the official curriculum taught by the professors.” At Yale-NUS that “civil society” is as lively as at any college in the world, and that is a source of great pride.

Entry 5. Life after college

My most speculative encyclopedia entry concerns life after college. I realize that two months before graduation is a stressful time for students, and not just because the deadline for capstone projects is rapidly approaching. I am very happy to see that about a third of the students who are seeking employment after graduation have already found very good jobs, and about a dozen of our students have been admitted to leading graduate programs, including combined degree programs with professional schools at NUS and at Yale. A lot of our students are still looking, or still contemplating what they will do next. I am optimistic that you are well prepared for work in a modern economy, and most importantly I believe that you will in the longer run make great contributions to society throughout your working lives. I hope also that our graduates will remain active in our community through the alumni association and various opportunities to return to campus and mentor future students.

I hope that as alumni you will feel, as I do, that the College is part of our experience, and, to quote Tennyson’s Ulysses:

“I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.”

We will each take Yale-NUS College with us wherever we go.

The College has succeeded beyond even my high expectations when I accepted the position of president five years ago. Looking ahead five or even ten years, what do we hope to accomplish to make Yale-NUS even more excellent?

I think there are three key questions for the future:

Question 1. How do we achieve even greater academic excellence?

It would be all too easy to accept our current version of the common curriculum as a key accomplishment of the College’s founding generation and then keep teaching it in the same way for the next decade. But our review last year showed areas for improvement. I am probably proudest of the fact that we have indeed managed to improve the common curriculum continually over the past couple of years. While I would not advocate frequent sudden changes to the curriculum, I think the College should continue to review and revise not only the common curriculum but also the curriculum in our majors. Another risk would be to treat the common curriculum as just a hoop that students and professors have to jump through and to diminish its importance to the College. Although I don’t know what the Common Curriculum will look like in ten or twenty-five years, I hope it will continue to evolve and that thinking about the best ways to educate undergraduates for an engaged life will continue to be at the heart of the College’s mission.

In concentrating so fully on the development of the curriculum, the College in its initial years somewhat delayed engagement with faculty research. This was due also in part to the absence of facilities to support some dimensions of research. I firmly believe that the best teaching at the university level will be offered by faculty who are also excellent researchers. To me, this is not a zero-sum game, and I encourage all of our faculty colleagues to develop a culture that pushes forward the frontiers of knowledge. Likewise, I encourage you, the undergraduates, to become involved in the process of research and knowledge creation.

Question 2. What relationship should we have with our founding institutions?

This question about research points to the question of our connection to both the National University of Singapore and Yale University. In my view, the relationship to these founding partners is crucial to our success. The best research universities in the United States also offer some of the best undergraduate education in the world—I am thinking here not only of Yale but also of Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and many other leading research institutions that have not forgotten their roots in the tradition of liberal arts education. NUS has made huge progress in research over the past generation, and its leaders have tried continually to reconcile the growth of the research enterprise with high-quality undergraduate education.  Each institution needs to find the right balance, but Yale-NUS will be stronger, and will give a better education to future generations of students, if we draw on the strengths of our founding partner institutions rather than turning away from them.

Question 3. How can we work together most effectively?

On my first official day on the job, the College community doubled from having 30 members—the staff who had been hired before I became president—to having 60—those thirty staff plus the thirty inaugural faculty who started work on July 1, 2012. We continued to grow quickly, and today the community numbers more than 1000 members—over 300 faculty and staff and over 700 students. Throughout this period of rapid growth, we have faced challenges in terms of effective communication. It is possible to have a meeting of all 60 faculty and staff when there are 60 of you. It is very difficult to have a meeting of 300 faculty and staff, and there is simply no space on campus big enough for all 1000 of us to meet face to face.

Rousseau thought that the ideal republic should be able to fit into what we would today think of as a football stadium, so that the “general will” of the whole community could be determined in a face-to-face setting, as distinct from the “will of all” or the individual wills of subsets of the community. Our town hall meetings hearken back to that kind of direct contact among members of the community, but a college is not a republic. As leaders of the College, the deans, vice-presidents, and president need to reach out to faculty, staff, and students in order to communicate effectively about plans and to get input about decisions. At the same time, all members of the community can play a role in giving constructive feedback, working together on common projects, and, when misunderstandings arise, taking a charitable approach in which we assume the goodwill of the other members of our community.

This gets harder to do as we grow, but I think that the layout and organization of the College do help to nurture smaller communities within our broad community of learning.

We have a diversity of cultures in the College—not only in the obvious sense of people born in many places but also in a more specific sense of a variety of academic cultures and attitudes to authority and decision-making that we bring with us to our work. For the College to succeed, we must continue to work together to build a culture that encourages academic excellence, good stewardship of our resources, and collaborative work to achieve our common goals.

It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as the founding president of Yale-NUS College. Thank you all for everything you have done to build this place. I hope that even when we are far away from Singapore we will all remain committed to the success of this remarkable College. To quote Tennyson’s Ulysses once again, let us each in our own way continue to work for the future of Yale-NUS and remain “one equal temper of heroic hearts… strong in will, / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”