story | Pericles Lewis, President of Yale-NUS College
photo | Public Affairs

A colleague of mine studied for his freshman and sophomore years at Princeton University. As a junior, in 1967, he transferred to the beautiful, brand new campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, on the Pacific Ocean. It was the university’s third year, the first two having been spent in temporary trailers, and in his first days as a transfer student, my friend overheard two other juniors saying, “It was so much better back when we were in the trailers.”

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion; one I’ve felt often in my life, and at Yale-NUS College almost every day since we opened in Residential College Four (RC4) on the July 4, 2013. The acappella group “The Scheduling Club” seems to know my soft spot, and at the final town hall meeting of the year they sang “In My Life,” the Beatles song that was John Lennon’s first truly great composition, written—when he was just shy of his 25th birthday and already world-famous—about growing up. Maybe they noticed three years ago how emotional I got when I heard them practicing the song in the RC4 dining hall. But they probably didn’t know that this was the song I sang the one time I auditioned for a high school musical, in 9th grade. I got a non-singing part.

Reading the back issues of our venerable student newspaper, it is easy to be nostalgic for the days of Panopt, published mostly in PDFs by the Vice-Rector’s office, when I contributed an article on “Collective Effervescence,” the sense of participating in a bold experiment. The first set of interview questions that Joyan and Spandana sent me were generally “soft balls,” but right from the beginning the paper did ask tough questions too, for example about the lengthy debates over the constitution of the student government.

The early issues also did a great job of covering speakers and events around campus, such as the visit of LGBT activist Alex Au, as well as the founding of various Yale-NUS clubs (most of which have lasted to this day). There was a high ratio of news to opinion. In those days, you would find hard copies of Panopt by the RC4 elevator and receive soft copies in your email inbox from Vice-Rector Eduardo and Indrani.

In year two, Panopt declared independence and became a student organization with the bold statement that “a newsletter that simply praises its institution without critical thought has outlived its usefulness to the community.” The news coverage improved, and challenging opinion pieces addressed sports, pre-med studies, problems in the common curriculum, safe spaces, health insurance, and protest posters in the lifts. The class of 2017 expressed its disillusionment and the college seemed to be going through a sophomore slump. And who can forget the great debate about the name “Panopt”? Perhaps someone assigned Bentham or Foucault in “Modern Social Thought”.

Beginning in 2015, The Octant collaborated with The Yale Daily News on a number of articles, resulting for the most part in a greater understanding of Yale-NUS issues back in New Haven, while also giving our journalists here in Singapore an opportunity to learn how a more established newspaper approaches the job of covering a large university. By this stage, preparing for an interview with the Octant editors was a major part of every week in the President’s Office.

In year three, Zula, Dave, and Yonatan often came to interview me—and most recently Justin has taken over that role. Probably a watershed was the article “Exodus of Deans” about the departure of some of our founding deans, a story that was picked up by the Straits Times. Increasingly in the last two years, stories in The Octant have made the national news, as well as the Yale news, and occasionally even international outlets. Reports on the endowment, the preliminary plans for a fourth residential college, and—due to my loose lips—a scoop on the Latin Honours system all made headlines beyond the bounds of our campus.

The Octant has fulfilled a crucial purpose of a free press by raising issues that concern the student body and by holding me,the college leadership, and the faculty accountable for our decisions. At times, I have disagreed with the way the paper has portrayed certain issues; at other times, I have taken the opportunity to express my views in The Octant even at the risk of making our in-house spats more visible to the outside world. Occasionally, we have asked the editors to issue a correction. I respect the efforts of several “micro-generations” of editors to report accurately but fearlessly on the state of affairs at the College without being tempted to produce “clickbait.” They have also taken fair account of issues of student privacy during critical times.

What I have admired most about our students, and our student journalists in particular, is their willingness to debate challenging issues without, for the most part, turning them into personal vendettas or demanding protection from the expression of opposing views. With social media, we are all very plugged in to what is happening in higher education in other countries, and it is clear that over the last few years a growing intolerance has arisen on many campuses, where speakers whose views are unpalatable get shouted down and professors and fellow students are harassed for inadvertent offences. The pressures in favor of censorship come from both the left and the right. At Yale-NUS, we have for the most part avoided this kind of self-righteousness, while maintaining a respectful atmosphere in which all are treated with due regard but, as our faculty statement on free expression says, “there are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated.”

I look forward to reading the news of Yale-NUS in many issues of The Octant to come, from the comfortable distance of New Haven. And let’s remember the words of John Lennon in his last great song, “Watching the Wheels,” just before his 40th birthday: “People asking questions, lost in confusion: / I tell them there’s no problems, only solutions.”

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