Governing Board Interview Series

story Regina Marie Lee, Managing Editor
Joyan Tan, Executive Editor

FEATURES Rick Levin_Karen Teo

Mr. Levin said criticism from Yale faculty was from a “small minority” and the eventual resolution passed did not actually call for plans to be abandoned (Karen Teo)

It was at the Davos World Economic Forum that then Yale University President Richard Levin was approached by Tan Chorh Chuan, President of the National University of Singapore (NUS). The latter proposed the idea of starting a liberal arts college in Singapore with Yale. In an interview with The Octant in March, Yale President Emeritus Mr. Levin recounted how the collaboration progressed, and his view on criticism from some Yale faculty. He spoke on the collaborative nature of the Singapore government’s involvement in Yale-NUS College, and his assessment of how far the College has come. Excerpts from the interview follow.

You were very involved in the initial stages of Yale-NUS. Could you tell us more about the process?

NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan approached me famously at the Davos World Economic Forum in 2009 with the idea that Singapore would love to have a liberal arts college to gain exposure to that form of education. He thought this would be a real opportunity to partner with a leading American college to create something novel, not just a replication, but something that was a cross-cultural collaboration. We wanted to develop an education rooted in both Asian culture and Western norms. That idea appealed to me greatly because I’d invested quite a lot of time and energy into building Yale programs in Asia, most especially in China.

President Tan had proposed the idea to some liberal arts colleges in the United States, thinking that if the idea was to launch a small liberal arts college, NUS should partner with a small liberal arts college. That didn’t work because these colleges didn’t have the scale to be able to free up enough faculty and administrative personnel to work on planning. So he realized that maybe he should partner with a major university closer to the size and scope of NUS, so that they’d have the resources to make the partnership work. I believe that we were the first large university that President Tan approached.

He and I had known each other and met at various gatherings around the world. [Yale-NUS Governing Board Member] Linda Lorimer and I were in the first meeting and we got very excited about the idea. We immediately put a team together and started working on it.

Was the process fairly smooth?

Until we hit a bump in the road in the spring of 2012, the process was very smooth. The collaboration was very good between the faculties. The irony is that we actually had a whole series of open meetings for faculty at Yale to come and comment, which we publicized in the academic year 2011 and 2012. Then in the spring of 2012, a dissonant group of Yale faculty suddenly decided to question the enterprise. These people had previously had all kinds of opportunities for engagement that they hadn’t taken up.

It was a small minority, but enough to gather some support. After the financial crisis, we’d been through budget cuts and there was a need to focus the discontent on… something. People who were deeply concerned about it proposed a resolution for the faculty that was framed in such a way that it was hard for people to object. The resolution [passed in a Yale College faculty meeting] didn’t actually suggest that we should abandon our plans for the college; it merely affirmed Yale’s commitment to human rights, and questioned Singapore’s commitment. A few of us pointed out that that wasn’t a very sympathetic approach to partnership. Part of the engaging in the world is to understand different perspectives. Fortunately, that moment passed and we went ahead with the project.

How was the collaboration with the Singapore government started? How did they get involved?

Well, we had to get the resources. Somebody had to pay for it. Since education in Singapore is largely publicly funded, President Tan had from the beginning thought that the government would be the funder. We had support, from the beginning, from the [then] Minister of the Education and the [then] Finance Minister, and a number of others were very supportive of the idea.

To what extent does the government have control over what happens in the College?

We have a Charter, an agreement that is between NUS and Yale that has the endorsement of the Ministry. The Charter sets out the rules of governance, guaranteeing the autonomy of the College and its right to set academic policies. We also have financial support from the government for supporting the construction of the College and its new facilities. The government has a seat on the [Governing] Board. It’s not been intrusive in any way on academic matters. It’s just been very collaborative.

You don’t expect there to be intrusion from the government in the future?

I think we have a very good relationship. There were certain things that the government was very concerned about in the beginning, which the parties came to an agreement on. We came to an agreement on a good mix of Singaporean and international students within the cohort, for example. I think the government has been very far-sighted and sees value in education that is broad and not narrowly specialized. And the government understands that our small classes encourage students to think independently and to be less passive than has been the case in historical Asian education. I think we’re very much in line with what we’re trying to accomplish here.

[Is the] formation of Yale-NUS in line with vision and principles of Yale?

It’s very aligned. But it also recognizes that it’s a partnership, one that is founded by two great universities, in Asia for the world, recognizes that this is not meant to be a replica of Yale. It’s a product of the collaboration. It’s specifically in Asia and specifically dedicated to a global purpose. Yale embraces collaboration and respects its partners. We’re not trying to impose Yale on Singapore. We’re trying to collaborate with NUS and the Singapore government to create a great institution that has its own identity, values and cultures. I like the results so far, it’s gone supremely well.

What if there are instances where Yale-NUS College does not respect free speech and dialogue as much as Yale might?

Yale-NUS College will respect free speech because it’s in the Charter. Academic freedom is expected here.

I’m not familiar with all the discussions that have been taking place on this issue. It’s one thing to have hypotheticals, and another to look at how specific instances have been handled. I’m not aware of any instances of suppression of free speech, and I’d be really disappointed if that were the case. We expect to uphold free speech, and we also expect respect for the laws of Singapore. Things that are not legal in Singapore are things that the student body shouldn’t be engaging in, but freedom to express one’s opinion in class on the campus is guaranteed by our founding agreement. We’ve published the language of that clause, and I haven’t heard of any problematic cases that seem to violate that understanding. I don’t expect to.

Do you foresee major changes in the coming years?

My sense, from talking to the leadership, is that they do want to pay some attention to getting the sequence of science courses to work well for both science and non-science majors. I think a lot of things are going well. The international experiences are very impressive, and I think students like that.