A Spirit Of Experimentation
Governing Board Interview Series
interview David Chappell
At Yale University over the spring break, The Octant sat down with the President of Yale, Mr. Peter Salovey, to discuss Yale-NUS College. During the interview, Mr. Salovey acknowledged the risks associated with building a new liberal arts institution in Singapore, yet remained optimistic about Yale-NUS as its own entity with its own spirit of experimentation.
As a member of the Governing Board, how regular is your involvement with Yale-NUS?
I am at all of the board meetings either in Singapore twice a year or generally from teleconference. I probably talk to President Lewis about once a month … I just saw him here in New Haven about two days ago. So the involvement is actually pretty regular, with not a lot of time passing between discussions.
From your involvement, have you found any lessons that you think Yale can learn from Yale-NUS?
I think the most important thing that Yale can learn from Yale-NUS College is what it is like to have a spirit of experimentation … A challenge with a 314-year-old institution like Yale is that we sometimes feel bound by our history to be anxious about innovation. There is no one in Yale-NUS who is anxious about innovation, but they also accept that some things aren’t going to work. There is a spirit that says, “well we can fail, but we can pick ourselves up and try something else” and I think that that spirit is wonderful and [Yale] can learn from that.
You’ve been quoted as saying that the benefits of Yale-NUS, as an experimental college, outweigh the risks. What, in your opinion, are these risks?
Every time you start a new institute of higher education you want to make sure that the quality of faculty and students is high. I would say that the quality of faculty and students have exceeded my expectations, but that’s always a risk. The second is if the College has to rely too heavily on Yale and NUS, rather than develop its own infrastructure, operations team, endowment and faculty leadership … The third risk could be something political, some kind of dispute between institutions or countries that plays out in some way at the College. That kind of controversy would have with it a kind of reputational risk.
With regards to these risks, how have you and Yale as an institution responded to criticisms and controversy?
I respect and I think we all have to respect that individuals will differ in their views about what kind of projects a university might engage in, what kind of values, where a university should focus its efforts and the talent of its faculty. So I don’t find criticism unwelcome. I think it’s part of the process and I am comfortable with it. I would hope that so far anyway the quality of the educational experience at Yale-NUS … has impressed the people who, in the planning stages, were most nervous about this educational collaboration.
One controversy, at least within Yale-NUS, has been its status as an “autonomous college within NUS.” How would you interpret this status?
I see Yale-NUS as its own entity. It has its own board, faculty and students. Its degrees are certified by NUS, … and a certain amount of the hiring of faculty and the development of the curriculum is linked to both Yale and NUS … I would not be worried about the links between Yale-NUS and NUS, because the proximity to NUS and its resources…can be a great benefit for the College, which of course will develop a lot of these resources on its own. But why not take advantage of what is nearby? I would not reject that. It can only strengthen the College.
Throughout Yale-NUS’s brief history there have been moments where value differences between Yale-NUS and NUS have surfaced. How would Yale deal with these issues if they ever came into conflict?
I think you just try to work them out. I think reasonable people are very motivated to get to a place of common ground and common understanding and I think that has certainly been the case so far.
Spandana Bhattacharya contributed reporting.