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Inaugural Symposium: “You Guys Just Innovate, We’ll Pay the Bill”

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Motivations for Yale-NUS Founding Discussed at Inaugural Symposium

story Elaine Li, Contributing Reporter

The first panel in the Symposium featured the Presidents of Yale and NUS in a discussion centred on the formation of Yale-NUS College (Public Affairs)
The first panel in the Symposium featured the Presidents of Yale and NUS in a discussion centred on the formation of Yale-NUS College (Public Affairs)

It was a convergence of interests between Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS) that led to the birth of Yale-NUS College, Yale President Emeritus Richard Levin and NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan explained. They were speaking at the Inaugural Symposium on International Liberal Education on Oct. 11.

NUS was looking to internationalize education and provide more tertiary education options in Singapore. At the same time, Yale had plans to expand and reinvent liberal arts in Asia, and found significant financial support from the Singapore government. “We found ourselves in this position, and here all of a sudden was Chorh Chuan coming with the full faith and credit of the Singapore government behind him, saying, you guys just innovate; we’ll pay the bill,” Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Levin and Mr. Tan, who were Presidents of Yale and NUS respectively at the time the agreement was reached, were speaking at the first panel of the Symposium, “Founding Yale-NUS College: Dialogue Among Presidents”, chaired by Yale-NUS College President Pericles Lewis. The full-day symposium, hosted in conjunction with the Inauguration of the Yale-NUS College campus, brought together approximately 40 international higher education leaders. It aimed to provide a platform for open discussion and inquiry about the fundamental challenges facing higher education today, and foster visionary thinking about reshaping undergraduate education for the 21st century.

Both the Singapore Ministry of Education (MOE) and NUS had an interest in bringing liberal arts education to Singapore, Mr. Tan said. MOE saw liberal arts education as a way of keeping Singapore’s “human capital on edge”, while NUS saw it as “an important new part of NUS […] which we think will position us well for the future,” Mr. Tan said.

It was “the right idea, the right partner, and the right time” that made Yale take on the proposal, Mr. Levin said. He said that historically, Yale has had an international education agenda, which recently focused on many ventures in Asia.

Mr. Levin said he was encouraged by the excellent chemistry in the partnership with Singapore, as well as the financial freedom afforded to Yale by the Singaporean government’s funding of the venture. The venture came at a time when “Yale had lost 6 and a half billion [USD] in the markets” and “were facing 350 million [USD] of budget cuts to implement over the next couple of years”, according to Mr. Levin.

Mr. Levin also expressed personal frustration at the fragmented nature of American college curriculums, where the significance of meaningful mastery of different disciplines had been lost. However, change was difficult to instigate at an institution like Yale with many years of tradition. Yale-NUS presented an opportunity to design liberal education from scratch.

The symposium included a second panel on “The Future of International Liberal Education”, composed of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford Andrew Hamilton, President of Shanghai Jiaotong University Zhang Jie, and President of Vassar College Catharine Hill. Drawing on experiences from their own institutions, each speaker provided unique insights into contemporary challenges of internationalizing liberal education, such as the merits of the Oxford discipline-focused model and strategies to motivate faculty and increase accessibility and diversity of college admissions.

Yale-NUS will host its second symposium on liberal arts education in New Haven in June 2016. This symposium will be more focused on issues of the curriculum, and will involve more Deans of Faculty and curriculum committee chairs as opposed to college presidents, Mr. Lewis said.

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