Yale-NUS College’s next president, Tan Tai Yong, has already left mark on community, curriculum

Tan Tai Yong, executive vice president for academic affairs at Yale-NUS College, has been named as the college’s next president by the Governing Board, following an extensive global search.

Tan, who will take up his new post on July 1, succeeds Pericles Lewis, the college’s founding president. Lewis will return to Yale to assume the combined role of vice president for global strategy and deputy provost for international affairs in the fall.

The announcement of the new president-elect was made March 14 by the co-chairs of the Presidential Search Committee: former Yale president Richard C. Levin, now chief executive officer of Coursera, and Tan Chorh Chuan, president of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

“These have been exciting yet demanding years for the college, and many key decisions and enhancements bear Tai Yong’s imprint,” wrote the co-chairs in announcing the appointment. “Tai Yong has contributed immensely to the college’s rapid development while maintaining his characteristic modesty and good humor.”

Established in 2011, Yale-NUS College is Singapore's first liberal arts college with a full residential program that integrates living and learning. Drawing on the traditions of Yale University and the National University of Singapore, the college aims to redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.

Tan has been a leader in the Yale-NUS College community since its early planning days. He and Lewis served as co-chairs of the joint Yale and NUS committee that hired the inaugural 15 faculty members in the humanities and advised on the formation of the common curriculum. Tan also participated in the August 2011 workshop in New Haven, at which the shape of the common curriculum was largely determined. A strong believer in the value of a liberal arts education, Tan has been an advocate for the broad and multidisciplinary approach at the college that helps students see the world’s issues in a wider context, from different perspectives, and across cultural boundaries.

As the college’s executive vice president for academic affairs, a post he has held since 2014, Tan has worked closely with students, faculty, and staff to enrich the educational experience of the Yale-NUS students and to enhance the college’s academic programs. He worked with the faculty to strengthen the curriculum, articulate procedures and standards for tenure and promotion, and refine policies. Under his leadership, the size of the faculty has nearly doubled and become more diverse, and he recruited four deans who have worked to integrate the academic and student life of the college. He also led efforts to enhance research, strengthen the sciences and social sciences, and improve the college’s laboratory and library facilities.

President Peter Salovey praised the appointment, noting that Tan is “devoted to liberal arts education” and “passionate about the college’s distinctive academic program.”

“I am impressed by Tai Yong’s unwavering commitment to the multi-disciplinary courses to foster critical, creative, and active thinking,” said Salovey. “He intuitively understands that it will take perennial effort by the college’s leadership and faculty to sustain and nurture it.

Salovey also noted that he has asked Lewis to work closely with Tan in continuing to expand the engagement between New Haven and Yale-NUS. “Given the importance of Yale-NUS College as one of Yale University’s most significant international initiatives, we must all work hard to build the strongest foundation between our two institutions,” said the Yale president.

Tan earned a First Class Honours degree from NUS and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge University, and went on to teach in the NUS Department of History. He served for six years as dean of the NUS Faculty of Arts & Sciences and for four years as vice provost of student life. During those years, he was one of the key architects of academic and student life programs at University Town, the college’s close neighbor.

“Tai Yong made clear that he missed interacting routinely with students and that one of the attractions of the presidency will be the opportunity for much more regular interactions when he moves to campus this summer,” wrote Levin and Tan Chorh Chuan. “His conviction that outstanding teaching is vital for the college was important to the search committee, as was the articulate and powerful case that he made about the need to retain, and to build upon, the distinctive curriculum of the college as a defining element of Yale-NUS.”

Tan has been a member or chair of 11 educational, cultural, and charitable organizations in Singapore, including serving as chair of the National Collections Advisory Panel of the National Heritage Board. Appointed as one of nine nominated members of Parliament in 2014, Tan has emphasized the importance of cultural diplomacy as the basis of strong relationships with other countries and encouraged resilience in Singaporean students. He has also been a champion for open dialogue among all members of the Yale-NUS community.

The president-elect is a noted historian of South and Southeast Asian history, and has published extensively in these areas. He was founding director of the Institute of South Asian Studies, an autonomous university-level research institute in NUS.  He served on the editorial board of the journal Modern Asian Studies (Cambridge) and on the international editorial board of India Review (USA), among many other professional services.

“I am overjoyed to be handing over stewardship of this remarkable college to my friend and colleague Tan Tai Yong,” said Lewis. “His wisdom, energy, and calm have improved Yale-NUS immeasurably since he joined the college full-time two and a half years ago. A leader who understands the faculty, staff, and students well, Tai Yong is poised to take the college to further heights of excellence in the coming years. When I return to New Haven, I look forward to working with Tai Yong to ensure the continued success of Yale-NUS.”