28 August 2013: Learning from its ‘Founding Fathers’

Banner_Convo Presidents

President Pericles Lewis of Yale-NUS College hosted a candid and broad-ranging dialogue with NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan and Yale University President Emeritus Richard Levin, in front of an audience of Yale-NUS College students, faculty, and administrators. The Presidents reflected on Yale-NUS College’s origins, recounted challenges and surprises in the course of the College’s development, and anticipated future challenges and opportunities for the growth of the College and liberal arts in Asia, from both their professional and personal perspectives.

President Tan initiated the discussion by identifying converging trends that motivated Singapore to develop a new liberal arts college, including the importance of flexibility and global perspectives in a modern education, the importance of promoting innovation in the Singaporean educational landscape, and his personal belief in the value of individual multidimensionality. Yale, he argued, was a natural partner to pursue this new college, because of its extraordinary academic resources, its focus on undergraduate education, as well as then-President Levin himself, who President Tan praised as an ideal partner and an “eminent visionary”, possessing the humility to support a new educational model that looked past Yale’s ongoing success. President Emeritus Levin explained Yale’s interest in the project by noting its recent record of forging partnerships with Asian universities, and its awareness of the incipient demand for liberal arts in Asia. But Yale’s ability to develop an Asian liberal arts college, President Emeritus Levin noted, required a regional partner interested in “rethinking” the liberal arts and not simply “recreating Yale in Asia”. NUS, and President Tan’s own vision, resonated with this need, triggering the process that culminated in the founding of Yale-NUS College.

When the conversation next turned to the development of the College, the Presidents described their respective roles in determining the College’s characteristics, such as financial aid and academic freedom. The trajectory of Yale-NUS College’s development, President Tan argued, was directed towards the long-term transformation of education in Singapore and the development of new modes of thinking, pedagogy, and experimentation, with the goal of both helping Singapore remain “ahead of the curve” in higher education. President Levin reiterated that this goal would ultimately be attainable through the development of the College’s community and student body, and applauded the quality of the inaugural class.

Students had the opportunity to join in the dialogue about Yale-NUS College’s future development. President Tan and President Emeritus Levin described the College’s careful system of governance by which both ‘parent’ institutions are able to leverage their own resources to support the College while maintaining it’s operational independence. Both attributed this structural importance to maintaining the College’s future adaptability. President Emeritus Levin emphasised that the College has to develop the structure and flexibility to encourage a mindset of intellectual, spiritual, and physical fortitude, which President Tan characterised as the “desire to do extraordinary things because you want to do them”, and a “community that is looking at the challenges in the world around it and is motivated to do something about it”.

To round up the evening’s discussion, President Tan said that the College’s model for co-curricular and residential life is helping NUS create new learning opportunities for its students, while President Emeritus Levin described how the study of Eastern and Western traditions in parallel, is being explored back in the US. More broadly, he sees potential significant influence on higher education in China, India, and Southeast Asia, which could drive the invigoration of liberal arts in Asia. However, President Tan reminded all to be mindful of continuous review and assessment – “We have to always think, where do we go from here? We can always do better,” President Tan said.