Governing Board Interview Series
story Regina Marie Lee, Managing Editor
In an exclusive interview with The Octant, Governing Board member Roland Betts revealed that a fourth residential college will be built. At present, there are three residential colleges on campus—Saga, Elm and Cendana. In March, Mr. Betts shared his views on how to measure the success of Yale-NUS and how it compares to New York University (NYU) Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi. The serial entrepreneur of two companies—Chelsea Piers, LP and Silver Screen Management, Inc.—also gave practical advice on pioneering projects.
As a third-generation Yalie, Mr. Betts was appointed to the Yale-NUS Governing Board in 2011 after serving as Senior Fellow at Yale University, where he oversaw all construction and buildings for ten years. At Yale-NUS, he oversaw the development of the Yale-NUS campus as Chairman of the Infrastructure Committee. Excerpts from the interview follow.
The Octant: What were some of the priorities that you had with regard to the new campus?
RB: [Being asked to partner with the National University of Singapore] made us think about what makes Yale’s liberal arts education unique. Certainly one thing is small class size and then another is the curriculum. But the most important thing is the residential college system, where the big university is divided into smaller residential colleges … So [Yale-NUS will] take the big group and break it into smaller groups and make it more manageable, more intimate, [with] more contact with students. Intimacy is a big goal.
The Octant: How did you decide on the size of the school?
RB: Once we decided that we were going to use the residential college model, we knew that we could get about 400 students in each residential college. The question is: how many of these units are we going to build? If we only build one, it’s not enough. The plan was to build four. We build three now and the intention is to build a fourth college. The planning for that will start pretty soon because eventually there will be four residential colleges.
The Octant: Is there space for the new college?
RB: Yes. Do you know the North end [beside Cendana College]? The land is there and the understanding is that we’re going to do it but we’re going to build three to get things started and get things off the ground. Actually, we were talking about it today [March 9, 2015] that we need to start planning architectural drawings. We need to start getting the Singaporean government behind the fourth college. We have the grand opening [of the campus] on Oct. 12 and the Prime Minister will be there. It’s going to be a spectacular experience and people will see immediately that this is different. And that’s the time to start reminding everybody that there is going to be a fourth college … Let’s assume [that] not everything goes well, so [construction will take] four years.
The Octant: How do you measure returns on an educational institution like Yale-NUS?
RB: We see that education in Asia is about to explode, and there aren’t really good liberal arts models in Asia, so we want Yale-NUS to be a model for other schools that we think will be created, for example, throughout China and India. That’s a way that we measure. If we find, say 10-15 years from now, there are seven or eight new universities created in Asia that copied the model of Yale-NUS, that would be a great success.
The Octant: How does Yale-NUS strive to become a model? There are other schools that are similar to us, like NYU Shanghai and NYU Abu Dhabi. What makes Yale-NUS different? What is the dream to make us different?
RB: I can only speak about Yale-NUS. Yale-NUS is more thoughtful, sophisticated, and detailed in terms of everything that we’re doing from curriculum to faculty to living experiences and so on. I think the likelihood that this will be the model that others copy is far greater than any of the other schools that are doing similar things. It’s the quality of the design, students, faculty, [and] innovation associated with the curriculum. You have a curriculum that is new, created for the purpose of this school. We didn’t just borrow it from Yale.
The Octant: A lot of the boards that you joined were new projects. What in your opinion is important when embarking on something that is a pioneering project?
RB: I think probably the most important thing is to be completely comprehensive in your planning. Don’t rush into things. Think through everything in as much detail as you possibly can, so that—things are always going to go wrong—but when you actually go forward, you have a very good idea of what you’re doing and what this college is aspiring to be.