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story | Justin Ong, Managing Editor
photo | David Zhang
As the founding President of Yale-NUS College, Pericles Lewis has been in office since July 1, 2012. Since then, the College has evolved from a mere idea of a liberal arts institution to an entity housing its first batch of students in Residential College 4 (RC4) to the beautiful College that all four classes reside in today. This would not have been possible without Mr. Lewis’ leadership and contribution to the growth of the College. Mr. Lewis will be stepping down on July 1 this year, handing his duties over to Tan Tai Yong, the current Executive Vice-President for Academic Affairs.
Over the years, Mr. Lewis gave many interviews with The Octant, including ones about his time in Yale-NUS. Sitting across from me on a wide armchair in the President’s office, Mr. Lewis spoke with warmth and sincerity about fond memories of his time in Yale-NUS, as well as his hopes for the College beyond his presidency. Edited portions of the interview transcripts follow:
What is your favorite Singaporean Dish?
I was asked this five years ago by one of the Singaporean newspapers and I said chili crab. I still like chili crab, and I like Peranakan food a lot too. But the paper then printed, “Will President Lewis gain weight while he’s in Singapore?” And the answer turned out to be yes, I did gain weight, although I don’t think it’s so much the Singaporean food, but just middle age (laughs).
What’s your favorite memory of your time in Yale-NUS?
I was just talking the other day about the two Week Seven trips I’ve been on. One was to the Philippines, where we saw Corregidor, an island in Manila bay where the Philippine and American governments moved when the Japanese took over Manila and where my [great] aunt lived when she was on the island during the war. The experience of walking around the island with a bunch of students and visiting the tunnel where my great aunt stayed when she was sheltering was very interesting and I enjoyed that a lot.
I’ve always had a lot of great experiences with music at Yale-NUS. I love the music groups and always find it very moving when I’m able to attend musical events.
I also remember the excitement of the first day when we opened, and the excitement of the inauguration of this new campus. Those are very memorable moments for me. I’m sure another day like that will be our first graduation [of the Class of 2017].
Were there any unique challenges you faced as the first president of Yale-NUS?
I think making sure we got an excellent faculty and student body right from the start. We were very successful in that regard, but we’ve continued to add more people in. I think each new appointment has been strengthening the college. We get people who are really committed to undergraduate teaching, who are also good at research (and who will therefore be able to connect students to the most current work in the different fields that they’re in), so I’m very pleased about that. That was the big issue at the beginning. Also, developing the curriculum was a challenge but I think overall that has worked out. I think most people feel like the common curriculum is a beneficial part [of the curriculum]. I know that there are certain courses that people feel like they just have to take and wish they didn’t have to take. But I think that if they looked at this from a broader perspective, they’re getting something out of those courses. If you look at the evaluations, for example, you see that students recognize the value, even if they may be frustrated at certain aspects of the course.
What is the legacy you want to leave behind?
It is important to me that we are a strong—well, we use that phrase—community of learning, that we are a strong community with a lot of commitment on the part of the staff and the faculty and students to the mission of the College. An ethos and attitude of service [are important] — that [graduates] are going to go into the world and make a difference in one way or another.
How do you think you will be remembered by the school?
That’s for somebody else to say (laughs). I don’t know the answer!
How do you feel about the announcement of Mr. Tan Tai Yong as your successor?
I am totally overjoyed. I think he will be a great successor. I am pleased because he has all the right personal qualities to be president which is the most important thing. He has the right kind of experience to be president; he knows the issues inside the college very well. Also, I’m happy to see a continuity. If you had a president who was [not initially part of Yale-NUS], people might ask if there are going to be any major changes. I’m sure [Mr. Tan] will have things he can improve that I haven’t done perfectly, but in general there will be more continuity than change, which will be a good thing.
What do you hope to see from Yale-NUS in the next decade?
I want to keep a strong relationship between Yale-NUS and Yale in New Haven. We’ve got various ways to do that: faculty exchange, student exchange, and so on, but I think there are ways to strengthen that further. More broadly, I want to see Yale-NUS thrive and become one of the best colleges in the world, and I think it’s already well on its way there. Continue to have excellent faculty, continue to attract the best students, and continue to have strong extra-curricular and international programs. Also, to make sure that the curriculum remains excellent requires continual attention.
Can you share a funny story?
I have a story that’s not about Yale-NUS but which I often tell. A friend of mine who is older than me [transferred to the] University of California, Santa Cruz [just after it was founded]. It is a very good university. They have a beautiful campus that looks out on the Pacific Ocean. He transferred in from Princeton, so he was there in the third year and they just built this beautiful new campus and they’d moved out of the temporary trailers they were in. He said he remembered walking along as a junior and overhearing other juniors say that this new campus is nice, but it’s not like when we were back in the trailers, which was the ‘true community’.
Sometimes I hear the same attitude about [when we were back in] RC4, saying we miss the days in RC4. RC4 was nice, but our new campus is much nicer. So I think that there’s a little nostalgia that everybody always has, that oh, we miss the good old days. But I think that the future is going to be better than the good old days, so we should look forward to the future. It’s onward and upward.
Mr. Lewis has been instrumental to the success and continuation of The Octant and we would like to thank him for his generous contributions to our organization. Above all, the team wishes him all the best for his future endeavors back at New Haven.