Yale and National U. of Singapore Set Plans for New Liberal-Arts College

March 31, 2011

Yale University and the National University of Singapore have made official their plans to jointly establish a liberal-arts college in the city-state, one they would like to be a model for all of Asia.

"We hope to create a really exciting model of liberal arts, one many Asian countries will find attractive because of its broader perspective on the complex problems of the world," said Richard C. Levin, Yale's president, in an interview on Wednesday.

The two institutions had originally made public a possible partnership last September but said at the time they still had to hammer out several budgetary and legal issues.

With the official go-ahead, announced on Thursday, the new Yale-NUS College hopes to enroll its first students, about 150, in the 2013-14 academic year. It will be Singapore's first liberal-arts college and the first in Asia to adopt a residential-college model, in which students study and live in an intimate setting. It will also be the first campus outside New Haven, Conn., that Yale has developed.

The four-year undergraduate program, which is eventually expected to have a student body of 1,000, will be an autonomous college of NUS, and students will receive degrees from the Singaporean institution. Singapore's government will foot the bill for the new campus and will reimburse Yale for all costs incurred.

The two universities, however, will collaborate to recruit faculty members and senior leadership and to craft a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking and cross-disciplinary studies.

Tan Chorh Chuan, the National University of Singapore's president, said those skills would be necessary "core qualities for graduates to be effective," especially in a small, multicultural, and globally connected country like Singapore. At least half the students are expected to come from Singapore, with the rest coming from elsewhere in Asia and around the world.

In their belief in the power of a liberal-arts education, Mr. Tan said, the two universities have a "convergence of vision."

Aristotle Meets Confucius

Asian universities, by contrast, have traditionally stressed specialized, career-focused training. But the idea of a liberal-arts education, with an emphasis on critical inquiry, has begun to gain traction across the Asian continent, and Mr. Levin said he hoped the Yale-NUS collaboration could prove to be a model for the region.

That would be in keeping with Yale's history as a leader in the development of American liberal-arts education in the early 19th century, Mr. Levin said. This new breed of liberal education will marry Eastern and Western intellectual traditions and cultural perspectives. For example, Mr. Levin envisions a course comparing the works of Aristotle and Confucius, who lived less than two centuries apart.

Returning to Yale's roots as a liberal-arts innovator was "irresistible," Mr. Levin said, adding that Yale had passed on other offers of international partnerships.

But now, as Mr. Levin noted, the real work begins. The two universities will start a joint presidential search and will appoint committees to hire an initial group of 30 to 35 faculty members. (When fully staffed, Yale-NUS will have 100 full-time faculty members.)

Charles D. Bailyn, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale who will serve as the new college's inaugural dean of the faculty, said the search committees would begin their work this fall, with the goal of having the first group of professors hired in time for the 2012-13 academic year. Those initial hires will spend that year in New Haven, creating the new institution's curriculum, picking up on preliminary work done by current Yale and NUS faculty members. They also will visit other colleges across the United States that are doing interesting pedagogical work in the liberal arts, he said.

Mr. Bailyn said he expected that the new faculty would be a mix of experienced professors and talented recent graduates, liberal-arts veterans and Asian experts. "We're hiring a group of people, not a series of individuals," he said. "There's not a slot reserved for a 17th-century China specialist."

The permanent teaching staff will be supplemented by visiting professors from Yale and elsewhere, Mr. Bailyn said.

And Mr. Bailyn said he was satisfied by assurances from the Singapore government and by testimonials from other American institutions with academic programs there that the new college would have full academic freedom, although he conceded that not all of his Yale colleagues have been convinced. The country, which restricts freedom of speech and of public demonstration, found a British author in contempt of court last fall for statements he made in a book about the Singapore judiciary.