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The Origins of Yale-NUS: A Conversation with Charles Bailyn

All PostsFeaturesThe Origins of Yale-NUS: A Conversation with Charles Bailyn

Kavya Gopal

Photo used with permission from Charles Bailyn

Bio on Bailyn

Professor Charles Bailyn is Yale-NUS’ inaugual Dean of Faculty. He is also the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. Professor Bailyn was an undergraduate at Yale and did graduate work at Cambridge and Harvard University, receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1987. 

I walk into Charles Bailyn’s office and see a space not unfamiliar to my eyes—papers littered all over the table, a dislodged shelf dangling on its edge, and the sound of furious typing. Clearly, this is the workspace of a busy man. But despite his numerous accomplishments, Bailyn remains warm and approachable to talk with about almost anything – especially his journey with Yale- NUS College.

I think the story of how this school came to be is fascinating.

Well it’s fascinating to me too, and somewhat surprising. My first encounter with this project was a phone call from the Yale President’s office. I went into the meeting not knowing anything about what we might talk about. When he asked how interested I would be in establishing the liberal arts curriculum from the ground up with no constraints, I said, well that sounds interesting. Only then did he say the word ‘Singapore’.

And somehow a few months later, I was part of the very first delegation from Yale to come to Singapore.

What were your first impressions of Singapore?

My first impressions of Singapore were extremely favorable. I landed, rested and then walked around Boat Quay, the Asian Civilizations Museum and Chinatown. Then in the afternoon I saw what would become University Town. At the time it was no longer a golf course. It was a mud pit. But there was this general sense that these people have good ideas, are serious about building something new and are open to creative thinking. I think all seven of us on the delegation left thinking, this is something we should seriously consider.

Over the next year (2009-2010), there were committees put together in New Haven and Singapore to consider how this would work in practice. We had parallel committees of faculty members and administrators on curriculum, on faculty recruitment and development, and residential life. At a certain point I whispered to somebody, if this is going to go forward I might want to play a significant role. 48 hours later I’m back in the President’s Office. And he says Charles; I’ve got a deal for you. And we kind of hammered out the idea that I would be the inaugural Dean of Faculty.

So was that the point of no return?

No, it wasn’t until April 2011 when the agreement was actually signed that the college existed. The next year was spent recruiting the inaugural faculty and putting together what later became the common curriculum. But it was just the outline, because we had no faculty to fill it in. At that time Pericles Lewis worked for me because he was the chair of the Humanities search committee and I was the chair of the Science search committee. And Deborah Davis, who has visited here on occasion, was the chair of the Social Science committee. We put together a group of 36 faculty members who then spent the year mostly in New Haven putting meat on the bones of the curriculum.

Do you remember your first interaction with students here?

We had already known some of the National Servicemen before the first academic year as many interned in admissions during their gap year. But, I remember a funny story related to recruiting them. There was a moment where somebody told Jeremiah Quinlan, then the

Dean of Admissions, about NS and he said, “Wait you mean we can’t recruit men for another two years?” We suddenly had a vision where the inaugural class of Yale-NUS would consist entirely of International Men and Singaporean Women and that didn’t seem like a good idea at all! (laughs)

Do you have a favourite moment here at Yale-NUS?

The very first faculty meeting we had in July 2012. Someone had very kindly designed and presented me with a gavel. And so I did this (bangs imaginary gavel). Oh there’s a picture! Here I’ll show you!

Bailyn using his gavel at Yale-NUS' first faculty meeting.
Bailyn using his gavel at Yale-NUS’ first faculty meeting.

So was moving to Singapore the craziest thing you’ve done in your life?

I would say it is probably the least predictable thing I’ve done. Because my parents are academics, it is not crazy to have become a professor and life kind of moved forward in this fairly predictable way. And then, (pause) I ended up in Singapore. And it has been one of the great adventures of my life, not only in building this institution but also in trying to figure out this place.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

There’s so much that one could talk forever! I keep these little (pulls them out) red notebooks that I bought a big stack of at the beginning and fill them up with meeting notes and comments. I go through about one of these a month. One of these days, decades from now, I’m going to go back and read these things and it’s going to be a fascinating record. It is extraordinary to me how far we’ve come.

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