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“At Yale We Build to Last”: An Interview With Charles Bailyn, Yale-NUS Inaugural Dean of Faculty

All PostsFeatures“At Yale We Build to Last”: An Interview With Charles Bailyn, Yale-NUS Inaugural Dean of Faculty

Story | Suman Padhi (she/her), Contributing Reporter
Photo | The Academy for Teachers

Charles Bailyn is currently the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, and the inaugural head of the Benjamin Franklin College in Yale College. He was the inaugural Dean of Faculty for Yale-NUS College from 2011 to 2016. Prior to this, he was the Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Yale Astronomy Department.

The Octant contacted Prof. Bailyn via email to answer some questions and express his opinions on the closure of Yale-NUS, which has since evoked public outcry. He later replied with his responses at the beginning of this week.

Suman Padhi (SP): How did you feel when you first learned about the closure of Yale-NUS? How do you feel now?

Charles Bailyn (CB): I was very sad that the institution will not continue, but also proud of what we achieved in the time we were given. That feeling has persisted, and I expect I will feel that way for as long as I feel anything.

SP: The decision has been quite unpopular in the Yale-NUS community, and many are calling on the NUS management for more accountability and transparency.  

What do you think about the decision-making process on NUS management’s side? 

CB: I have no particular insight into the NUS decision-making process. I’m a long way away right now! The decision came as a complete surprise to me. I only heard the day before the Town Meeting that this was even being contemplated.

SP: What do you believe Yale should have done or should do to ensure more accountability from NUS in the decision making?

CB: There’s nothing Yale could have done. I imagine that the Yale representatives on the Board of Governors did what they could to promote a different outcome, but NUS had the right (as Yale did) to leave the partnership in 2025, and if they chose to exercise that right, then that’s that.

SP: What do you think the dissolution of Yale-NUS means for the future of liberal arts in Asia as a whole? 

CB: My hope is that the surge of interest in liberal arts in Asia will continue even after the dissolution of Yale-NUS. It’s important to note that NUS management do want to continue with a strong liberal arts program, albeit in a different form. I hope that the basic model of liberal arts education, as well as many of the specific curricular and extra-curricular innovations that Yale-NUS introduced, will continue to expand both in Singapore and in the region.

SP: Why wasn’t Yale in favor of the dissolution of Yale-NUS, in your opinion?

CB: One of the particular features of Yale, which is highlighted by the differences over this decision, is that at Yale we build to last. That’s why the institution is still going strong over three centuries after its founding. I’m very conscious of this in my current role as the inaugural Head of College of Benjamin Franklin College (BF), a new residential college founded by Yale in 2017. Founding a residential college is not as grand an undertaking as a whole new institution! But I am absolutely confident that BF will outlast any of its founders, and still be in operation hundreds of years from now. You can see it in the architecture—you can see it in the attitudes of students, faculty, staff, and administrators. 

So when Yale participated in the founding of Yale-NUS, there was the expectation that the new institution would outlast us all. I think that expectation in fact partly explains the vehemence of the opposition here—if you believe something isn’t good, and that if it starts it’ll keep on going indefinitely, then of course you will oppose its founding vigorously! But it’s not in Yale’s DNA to end something that has been generally successful—modifications and changes might be helpful or necessary, but shutting the thing down altogether simply isn’t what we do.

SP: When Yale-NUS was a mere idea, there was a lot of opposition to the idea of starting it in Singapore on the basis that liberal arts could not thrive here. What was your experience co-founding Yale-NUS like?

CB: The objections raised by the Yale faculty and others that a liberal arts approach could not thrive in Singapore proved not to be true. 

I believe we created a legitimate liberal arts environment for the faculty and students of Yale-NUS. There were a few issues on the margins, which have received considerable publicity, but the Yale-NUS faculty statement from 2012, copied below, was generally upheld. I find it frustrating that some of the early opponents of Yale-NUS are now gloating over its demise, given that the difficulties they foresaw at the outset were not realized, and were not the cause of the end of the institution.

“We are firmly committed to the free expression of ideas in all forms—a central tenet of liberal arts education. There are no questions that cannot be asked, no answers that cannot be discussed and debated. This principle is a cornerstone of our institution.”

SP: Nine batches and more than 10 years later, to what extent would you say the liberal arts are successful here? 

CB: The best people to answer that question are the students themselves. I believe we succeeded, but the proof of that success will come from the experiences and careers of the students. I think it is a shame that the College came to an end before the full career paths of the students could be known, as that is the metric by which the college should have been judged.

SP: To Yale Daily News, you had said that “I think this is a strategic mistake on their part,”—what exactly did you mean by this and could you expand on how you believe this decision may be detrimental to both Singapore and NUS?

CB: There has been an increasing tendency over the past years for Singapore to restrict access by international students to Singaporean higher education programs. While it is not for me to tell Singapore what to do, as an outside observer who has considerable respect for many aspects of Singaporean society, I think this is a long-term mistake. One sees xenophobic tendencies all over the world right now—in the UK in the form of Brexit, in the USA in the form of Trump’s restrictions on immigration. But both the US and the UK still welcome international students and scholars, recognizing the crucial enhancement such people represent to the overall society. 

I would say that it’s not just that the first-rate university systems in the US and UK attract international scholars and students—it’s also that the international scholars and students are a crucial part of what makes those systems first-rate. Singapore too has a first-rate higher education system. But they are undermining that system by not welcoming more international students and scholars into the country. 

And in the case of Singapore it goes further. As a tiny country with a small population, Singapore’s position in the world has always depended on its status as an entrepot, as a crossroads where many cultures mix. In the current world, this is potentially a source of great strength, sufficient to make Singapore a regional power in culture and education as it already is in shipping and commerce. There’s a particular opportunity right now, given the difficulties Hong Kong is currently experiencing. But that potential will not be realized unless the international talent that would like to be educated and conduct research in Singapore continues to be welcomed to do so.

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