Unfazed by criticism, bullish about Yale-NUS college
by Derrick Paulo
When Yale University president Richard Levin visited Singapore last month, the resolution by faculty members who wanted to express concern about the planned Yale-NUS College was gathering steam.
But such criticism, even if it has been persistent from some quarters, is not something that fazes Professor Levin. Neither has it surprised him.
"Vigorous debate is just a way of life in American universities. It's the way that faculty express their views and with wide differences of opinion," he said in a recent interview with Today.
"Some of our faculty had concerns about the project from the beginning, and we had some debates and discussions about it last year before we signed the agreement with NUS ... (but) we've got many faculties deeply engaged in this project."
And ahead of the college's opening in August next year, Prof Levin declares that "there's a high level of commitment in Yale to make sure this will be a great success".
The two universities have high hopes that their liberal arts college will give students "a broad multidisciplinary perspective on the world" through an interactive pedagogy "that encourages students to think for themselves".
But there are certainly risks for both parties, as in any venture, Prof Levin admits. And for Yale, the biggest risk is simply to its reputation.
"That's why it's really important to us that this project succeeds. Our reputation as one of the world's great universities is at stake. We have to deliver and make this worthy of Yale," he said.
"Any kind of partnership has risks if the two parties don't end up seeing eye to eye on something. But we think that NUS has terrific leadership."
Despite the rumblings on Yale's home campus, when asked if there have been any differences between NUS and Yale, Prof Levin was positively bullish.
"So far, there's very strong convergence of NUS and Yale leaders and faculty involved in the way we think of this project. There's a great excitement," he said.
Today had previously reported that up to 50 per cent of the college intake could be foreign students, although NUS has also said that up to 80 per cent of the places will be available to Singaporean students.
While not going into the specifics, Prof Levin is clear on how the college's admissions approach will be.
"In the first years, the emphasis will be heavily to establish ourselves in Singapore. So the majority of students will come from Singapore in the first years," he said.
"We do want a strong representation of international students because the experience of any one student is made richer by the presence of students of different types. I see this at home all the time."
With the funding for the college coming from the Singapore Government, the project could not have come at a better time for Yale, Prof Levin also said.
"It came at a time that made it particularly attractive to us because in the fall of 2008, when the financial markets collapsed, Yale lost a quarter of its endowment. We lost over US$6 billion (S$7.57 billion)," he said.
"That created for us a necessity to rein back on some of our expansion plans, to freeze all of our new construction projects."
And even as Yale began to adjust its budget due to the loss, NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan approached Prof Levin in January 2009 to propose the partnership.
"It worked out very serendipitously ... at a time when all Yale could offer was the energy and enthusiasm of its faculty and staff," said Prof Levin.
The economics professor, who has been the university's president since 1993 and was recently appointed to serve on the United States President's council of advisers for science and technology, was unequivocal about his faith in Prof Tan's leadership at NUS.
The latter, said Prof Levin, is especially keen about one aspect of the college and the partnership: Helping students to see the world from the perspective of both Asia and the West.
"(While) those are simplified stereotypes - there is no one Asia, there is no one West - there are intellectual traditions," said Prof Levin.
And while he is full of praise for the education system in Singapore and in Asia, this is also where he thinks going global will work for Yale.
"We're going directly into the areas that are most crucially in need of attention, that is, to move a society from the level of training excellent specialists who can be effective in their roles in society but don't necessary have the vision and creativity to innovate and to lead in new directions - that's what we're trying to bring."
Derrick A Paulo is senior editor (Voices) at Today.