Saturday, December 4, 2021

“No regrets. Except that my hair has turned a bit white”: Tan Tai Yong on His Eight Years at Yale-NUS

Xie Yihui
Yihui (Class of 23) is the editor-in-chief at The Octant. She enjoys losing herself in nature, a movie, a book or a conversation.

Story | Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief
Photo | Yale-NUS Public Affairs

Last Friday (Nov. 5), The Octant’s editors interviewed Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong for the first time since the shock announcement, during which he revealed some faculty transition plans that have been keeping him busy. 

As the College nears the end of this eventful year, Prof. Tan is also completing his full five-year term of appointment. In June 2022, Prof. Tan will hand over the leadership to Prof. Joanne Roberts, current Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs). Looking back on his eight-year journey, he shared with The Octant his thoughts, gratitude, and regrets.

Yihui: We were just informed last week that Joanne is going to be our new president. What are the reasons for not renewing your presidential term? 

Prof. Tan: Well, there’s a really simple reason: I will finish five years of my full term next June. I’ve always had the view that I will just want to do one term, complete my term, and then hand it over to a successor.

That’s always been my plan. I think part of this is because of my belief in renewal. One gets tired after doing this for a period of time, and you always need to allow for renewal; you should always be prepared to pass the baton on to a successor.

As things stand, we’ve found an excellent next president, Joanne. I’m confident that she will be able to lead the college and do what needs to be done in the next few years. She’s very familiar with the college, she’s well-liked, well-respected. She is also very committed to the educational model that we have. And she’s got the experience of running the college in things like academic programmes, tenure processes, etc. 

I see the presidency as an act of stewardship. You’re entrusted with the responsibilities to steward the college when you are in charge, but this is not a long-term career. And when I was given a contract, there was no promise that I’d do two terms. In fact, I was very clear, given my age as well—I am 60 this year—it’s always good to step down when the time comes, and then pass the stewardship to a successor. 

Michael: So are you planning on going back to NUS History? 

Prof. Tan: No, no plans to move back to NUS at this point in time. My current plan after June is to take a sabbatical. I don’t know how long the sabbatical will be, but I just want to get back to doing some of my research, which has been stalled for many years. 

So I probably will hang around the college. I’m gonna ask for a little room somewhere. And then I’ll just move my books there and start thinking of perhaps another book project. 

Ryan: Will you be staying in Yale-NUS to teach? 

It’s possible if they want me. The first six months from June to the end of 2022 will be just for me to do my own work. After that, I will see what comes along; I’m not looking for anything. And if nothing comes along, then I’m happy to offer courses when the time comes.

Faculty transition plans: working things out on an individual basis 

Yihui: What are the main challenges that you and your colleagues have been facing since the merger announcement?

Prof. Tan: One of the first things is the emotional issue. Everybody was shocked, upset, some angry. Even as many of us in the leadership team felt the same emotions, we have to manage the situation and make sure that we try to calm everybody down and try to get people to understand what’s happening, and then try to offer a path forward. 

The second part is that people are not clear what the New College is going to look like; there are no details. I think, by and by as the planning committees meet, we are getting some clarity, some information coming through. 

For instance, I think you might hear from Joanne that there will be a curriculum report coming shortly. I think some details have been worked out for student life as well.

Yihui: What are the general reactions toward the merger from faculty? 

Prof. Tan: I’ve spoken to quite a few. They understand; they also have questions, of course, and anxieties. In fact, all the faculty would have spoken to Dean of Faculty David Post as well. He’s worked out the arrangements, and I think he’s also been very helpful in explaining to them what the steps are.

Some of the questions include: What if I don’t have a department to go to? Will I lose this part of my contract? I’ve been promised this, will I lose this if I want to move now? Can I move later or is it better for me to move earlier? What if I want to stay here until 2025? Is that possible? Will the department give me this and that? Will I lose my lab spaces? Will I be able to continue teaching in a new college if I want to? Those are the kinds of questions that they have been asking us.

Yihui: What has the Faculty Appointment Working Group settled so far? 

Prof. Tan: The first priority is that we need to ensure that we are able to offer the much needed courses for the remaining cohorts at Yale-NUS up to 2025. But, at the same time, to provide a clear path for faculty to move forward, beyond 2025. 

I chair the Faculty Appointments Working Group. And our main task is to work out a process that is clear and systematic for the transition of faculty to NUS gradually over the next several years, because you can imagine: there are 140 faculty here and each one of them will have specific needs and concerns and plans. 

So we are working out the timelines, and other arrangements like how to share teaching loads over the next three or four years, and also requirements like laboratory needs and things like that. By sharing teaching loads, I mean faculty sharing their obligations at the NUS department and at Yale-NUS as they start to transition to NUS. 

So for instance, Professor A wants to move to NUS History next year, then we will say: You still have to teach two courses, which we need at Yale-NUS, and maybe one course at NUS History.

But Professor A may say: I’m not prepared to move yet, I won’t be moving until 2024, 2025, [before] which I’ll teach most of my courses at Yale-NUS. That’s also possible. But we can do the affiliations—that means the appointment can be put on paper, but the teaching load can be all done at Yale-NUS. 

So these are the arrangements that we’re making almost on an individual basis, because if we don’t do this as a kind of a blanket rule, we have to look at needs, we have to look at individual preferences, look at the details of the NUS departments as well. 

By early next year, most of our faculty will have a good sense of what to expect. And then they will start the transfers gradually, not immediately; not everybody will move at the same time. 

Ryan: You mentioned that you were trying to map faculty from Yale-NUS to NUS. What about those departments that don’t have any NUS equivalent?

Prof. Tan: We’ve been able to map all faculty to some departments or schools at NUS. For instance, while there isn’t an Urban Studies department, faculty can actually join either Geography or Architecture, in the College of Design and Engineering. There’s an environmental studies programme at NUS, but Environmental Studies professors also can join Geography. NUS has a range of schools that can accommodate other majors.

Yihui: If some professors wanted to teach in a liberal arts college, and the New College is not going to be one, what would happen to them? 

Prof. Tan: This will be a kind of a personal choice. If someone says, look, I signed up for a small liberal arts college, we respect that. 

But it’s important that you don’t lose your job instantly. And my advice to faculty has always been, why don’t you take your time to think carefully about what you want to do in the next few years. Yale-NUS still has four years to go. 

In any case, in any given year, there are people who will always resign from the college and move to other things. And we’ll have to respect what people want to do. I will support them in that process, of course.

Successes and Regrets 

Yihui: What is your greatest success during your time at Yale-NUS?

Prof. Tan: I don’t want to be presumptuous and claim credit for success. But I must say I’ve had an exhilarating ride. It’s been a good eight years in college. 

If I look back at eight years, I would say that what’s made me most proud is, first of all, the ability to help build a college. We started with almost nothing. I helped build the college, the academic programs of the college, assembled over several years, a wonderful team of colleagues, faculty, and staff, and then being able to work with everyone, colleagues, and students to build a distinctive Yale-NUS ethos and spirit.

It’s been challenging in that sense, because this was the work of building something fresh. But it was gratifying. And by establishing the college, one feels that one is building something, and then providing stability as we grew, and then also making it better bit by bit. 

Yihui: Any regrets?

Prof. Tan: No, no regrets. Except that my hair has turned a bit white. If you look at a picture of me in 2017, someone showed me a picture of the head of black hair then; now it’s all salt and pepper. But this is all part of growing old. 

I didn’t come from a liberal arts background. But I thought that this experience working in a liberal arts college opened my eyes, and I could understand better the kinds of educational models that we are able to offer. 

So no regrets, no regrets. Except that I kind of miss the research and just being a teacher.

Yihui: The New College is not going to be a Liberal Arts Collegehow do you feel about it? You built something from scratch and now it is getting removed. 

Prof. Tan: As I said to you before, one doesn’t get involved in this project for eight, ten years and not feel something about it. But things evolve, things move on, and I don’t know what the New College is going to be like. I’m kind of a pragmatic realist in a sense that these things—change will happen, and we just hope that whatever we do, we continue to try to make sure that the good things that we do can continue. 

A friend wrote to me after the announcement, and I’ll share this with you. 

He said: “In academia, what we do is like building Tibetan sand mandalas.” He explains that they look beautiful one day, and then they are blown away by the wind the next day. But that’s not important, he said, the important thing is that we were involved in building it, and that experience must be what matters. 

So I see that, upon reflection, that I was part of this exercise in building up a liberal arts college in Singapore. And I think nobody can quarrel with the fact that I think we’ve made it a success. That would have been the thing that will stay with me for a long, long time. 

I would have loved to see Yale-NUS carry on for many, many years. But, well, as things turn out, I do hope that the New College will keep some of the legacies of Yale-NUS. I think then Yale-NUS will not disappear from the face of the earth. It will continue in some ways, and it informs the way the New College should function. 

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