Learning on the Job: Pericles Lewis on His Journey with Yale-NUS
story Spandana Bhattacharya, Editor-in-Chief
Next week promises to be a momentous week for Yale-NUS College, but even more so for Pericles Lewis, founding president of the College.
As the campus opens this coming week to dignitaries from around the world, it is in many ways asserting its place in the landscape of liberal arts education in Asia. The institution has grown from its early startup days and so has the person in change.
“Back in 2012, Mr. Lewis was “only a” Yale University faculty member helping with the curriculum design, development and hiring. He decided to interview for the position of President after visiting Singapore and interacting with the new hires.” The evening he knew he got the job, Mr. Lewis took his son out for ice-cream.
Preparing to be President
From being an academic at Yale with “some administrative work”, Mr. Lewis had a difficult transition ahead of him when he became President of the College. To prepare, he took a few classes on how to run a college. When asked where, he said with a laugh, “I hate to say the name of this—it was at Harvard.”
In the classes, he learned about the various models of administration at different colleges and universities and also discussed key issues associated with starting a college. It was in these classes that he understood the significance of a mission statement to get everybody to be onboard.
But a lot of his learning came on the job.
One of the first major challenges when he took the position was the debate over whether a liberal arts college could exist in Singapore, which involved various faculty members at Yale, and played out in the media. But he hoped his appointment brought people on board.
“To some extent I hope that people were reassured by the fact that I was willing to come here and commit that we would uphold values associated with Yale—academic freedom, integrity, non-discrimination and so on,” he said.
Even before it began operations, Yale-NUS attracted its share of negative press attention, but Mr. Lewis’ response to it has evolved over time. “I think if I looked at a bad headline three years ago, I would wonder, ‘Is this going to stop the college from opening’,” he said. He would lose sleep and get “very upset” over such articles. A part of it came from being new to the job and not knowing the actual details of how events would unravel in the following years.
Experience has brought with it a thick skin and a stronger sense of confidence for Mr. Lewis.
“I sleep much better now than I did my first year as President,” he said.
As President today, 250 members of faculty and staff report to him, but in the earlier days a major transition point was learning to manage people. “You have to assess people, you have to give people feedback, that’s not easy and takes getting used to,” he said.
Now a major challenge is maintaining the level of energy and the work-life balance of faculty and staff, many of whom have now worked for almost five years on the College, he added.
When John Reid ’17 walked into the President’s Town Hall on Oct. 9, 2014, he knew something was amiss about Yale-NUS’s move to the new campus scheduled in January 2015. Despite the “very disappointing news” that moving into the new campus would be pushed back seven months to August 2015, what really struck him about the Town Hall was the witty delivery of the news by Mr. Lewis.
“Someone asked if the new campus is a dry campus and he said [in response,] ‘Is RC4 a dry campus?’ … He got us laughing and [made us] understand the bigger picture,” he said.
Reid said that Mr. Lewis’s honest delivery of the news and ability to sense and shape the mood of the crowd highlighted his leadership abilities. “Some of the speeches he had given were very literature quote heavy and scripted, but he is at his best in a more informal setting when speaking off the cuff,” Reid said.
Similarly, Tee Zhuo ’18 said that Mr. Lewis was the best person to break the news of delay of the campus opening to the student body. “He probably has one the highest approval rating among students,” he said.
Seow Yongzhi ’18 said he felt that Mr. Lewis had grown into the role over the years, which can be seen from the progression of Town Halls over the years. The nature of the Town Halls have gone from talking about ideas to talking about specific issues, as his plans for how to run the College have solidified.
All 10 students interviewed said they felt that Mr. Lewis is approachable, which many attributed to his efforts to reach out to the student body through his Town Hall meetings and involvement in student life.
Seow said that Mr. Lewis’s speaking style helps boost student morale at Town Halls. “He is able to be personable in front of a crowd, which is great for students who are unsure of their place and that of their College,” he said.
Aadit Gupta ’19 said he felt that Mr. Lewis is “jovial” and “affable”, recalling a Freshman Reception at Mr. Lewis’s residence when he came up and introduced himself to the conversation. Reid, too, added that Mr. Lewis’s good memory for names and faces of students makes him more approachable to students.
Florence Yuan Feng ’17 said that she admires the ease with which Mr. Lewis switches between his role as a President and a member of the community.
“He attends the dance recitals, theater productions, Haunted House. In fact, he screamed as if he was shaken by the experience at the 2013 Haunted House,” she said. His attendance at these events makes him accessible to the student body.
Seow, who is the Bridge Captain for the Yale-NUS team, interacts with Mr. Lewis when he plays Bridge with the team. “We both have natural styles of playing bridge… He wants to be in control and he is the more aggressive partner when playing bridge. I’m his dummy,” he said.
Tee said that he had heard a few criticisms about Mr. Lewis, but didn’t personally agree with them. “Some have said that he is too soft, and not hard hitting enough. Honestly I think that [it] is not the job of the President to answer any critique about the school,” he said. He added however, that Mr. Lewis should choose a “better” Dean of Students while making hiring decisions.
For Mr. Lewis, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is interacting with students, and he will be teaching a class on Modern British Poetry next year to reach out to students in a classroom setting.
Applying Yale-NUS’s Lessons
Coming into the job, Mr. Lewis hoped that Yale-NUS would attract students and provide an education comparable to those found in “good” liberal arts colleges in the US. “Maybe if we were ranked against them we wouldn’t be terribly embarrassed by it,” he said with a laugh.
But, he adds, Yale-NUS has exceeded his expectations in many respects: the quality of faculty, students, international diversity on campus, strong staff commitment and also Yale-NUS’s impact on liberal arts education around the world.
Three classes in, the lessons learned at Yale-NUS are now generating conversations in the landscape of higher education among old and young universities alike. According to Mr. Lewis, universities such as Sorbonne who have a partnership with Yale-NUS have expressed interest in Yale-NUS’s model for education, while Amherst College representatives will be attending one of the College’s conferences in June to learn more about the curriculum. There is a strong interest in Yale-NUS among the newest universities as well, such as Ashoka University in India and Duke Kunshan University in China who have looked into the Yale-NUS Curriculum, Mr. Lewis said.
“We are starting a conversation about liberal education that I think is going to be worldwide,” Mr. Lewis said.
A Busy Day In the Life of Pericles Lewis:
Wake up at 6am.
Make sure kids are ready for school.
Answer a bunch of emails before breakfast.
Breakfast and Starbucks.
Lunch with a colleague.
More meetings… (6-11 meetings in a day)
Dinner or Reception with a visiting speaker
Answer more emails before bed.
Sleep at 1030 pm.
Who is your favorite poet?
Probably Yeats. I was going to say Wordsworth but probably Yeats.
What’s the song stuck in your head at the moment?
At the moment, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
Usually three or four.
What is your favorite place in the world?
[In the] countryside it’s probably Stony Lake which is north of Toronto; I spent a lot of time there over my childhood summers. In the urban world, probably London.
What’s the longest anyone has had to wait to get an email response from President Lewis?
*laughs* Well some people do wait weeks. And sometimes I forget to answer. Usually, I try and answer within 24 hours but I don’t always.
Of all the speeches you have given, which one is your favorite?
I was pretty pleased by the one that I just gave at the Freshman Assembly [this year] which was about character. Some of the people seemed to like it so I was happy with that one.
What is one book that you believe everyone should read before they graduate from Yale-NUS?
Might be a controversial answer. *laughs* The Republic by Plato.
Update: A previous version of this article had a typo. The article has been updated to reflect the change on 6 Oct. 10.40 pm.