story | Charles Bailyn, Professor and Inaugural Dean of Faculty
photo | Public Affairs
Well, it is upon us: the graduation ceremony of the inaugural class of Yale-NUS. With the departure of the class of 2017 and of President Lewis, there will be surprisingly little that is “inaugural” at Yale-NUS in the future. But as I contemplate my brief return to Singapore to witness and participate in this momentous event, I am put in mind of three previous events that together with this graduation delineate for me the evolution of the remarkable institution that is Yale-NUS College.
The first occurred in April 2011, when the Prime Minister officiated at the signing ceremony that founded Yale-NUS. I had already been part of the effort to create Yale-NUS for two years, and I was thrilled to participate in the event. But I was on the ground in Singapore for less than 48 hours before I had to return to New Haven, and I experienced a particularly bad bout of jetlag – I nearly passed out during the Prime Minister’s luncheon. It was a harbinger of the effort that the founders of the institution would need to put forth over the next few years. So I pulled myself together and fought through the discomfort, learning to work around my own limitations in an effort to realize the tremendous potential of the new undertaking.
Over the next 15 months I travelled to Singapore and back ten times, which led to one of the proudest moments of my life. In July of 2012 I gaveled the first meeting of the Yale-NUS faculty into session. I looked around the room, and felt humbled and honored by the remarkable talent that had chosen to jump off the cliff together to found this new institution. In the weeks and months that followed, we argued and fought over the first iteration of the Common Curriculum. It was a tough year in many ways, and the outcome was by no means perfect. But I think we stayed true to the ideals we had set ourselves, and got off to a strong start, strong enough that course corrections (in both senses of the word “course”) rather than a complete restart sufficed to keep us heading in the right direction.
Three years later, I addressed another faculty meeting. This time I announced to my colleagues that I would be returning to Yale following the third year of operation of Yale-NUS. In my remarks, I noted that when I departed from Singapore I would become an old man, in the sense that my most important work would be behind, not in front of me. After a year away, I still believe this is true. While I am engaged in some very exciting new initiatives in New Haven, nothing will ever compare with what I was privileged to be a part of at Yale-NUS. Nevertheless, I also still believe it was the right moment to step away. I had become tired – it is exhausting work doing everything for the first time, as the class of 2017 would surely agree. For the institution, the key imperative was shifting from a startup mentality, where expansive vision and frantic enthusiasm were critical, to an emphasis on long-term sustainability, in terms of both human and material resources. This is a crucial and potentially dangerous moment in the life of any new venture, in business, academe or anywhere else. It requires new skills and different people to navigate, and I suspect that Yale-NUS is in better hands now than it would have been if I had stayed on.
From this perspective, I suppose I could be considered the Steve Wozniak of Yale-NUS. And I suppose that in the future I will view Yale-NUS the way Mr. Wozniak must view the triumphant success of Apple after his involvement became merely peripheral. There is enormous pride, mixed with the wistful knowledge that one’s greatest and most intense achievements are past, and that others are now leading the way. So I salute my good friend Tan Tai Yong—whose new job will require traits associated with both Job and Jobs— and all of the faculty, students and staff of Yale-NUS yet to come. We “inaugurators” are proud to have laid a foundation and created a floor for you to stand on, but the building is yours to construct.
Charles Bailyn served as the Inaugural Dean of Faculty of Yale-NUS College from 2011-16.