Q&A: Developing a new frontier in liberal education at Yale-NUS College

Today’s announcement that Yale and the National University of Singapore will create a new liberal arts college in Singapore represents the first time that Yale has partnered with an outside institution to create an entirely new curriculum — one based on both Western and Asian ideas and traditions.

The venture will provide a new opportunity for students and faculty from all over the world, including those at Yale.

The Yale Daily Bulletin recently spoke with University Provost Peter Salovey to find out why Yale decided to embark on this new venture, how the new Yale-NUS College will operate, and what it will mean for Yale students and faculty.

How does the Yale-NUS initiative serve the Yale mission?

For almost 200 years, Yale has been a leader in liberal education, first for our region and then in extending it across the nation. Yale faculty and graduates were the founders or first presidents of over 30 institutions of higher education. Now, this is a chance for Yale to influence — and be influenced by — the introduction of the liberal education in Asia. China, Korea, and India all have demonstrated growing interest in liberal arts education, but there is no obvious model in that part of the world. We believe the curriculum at Yale-NUS College, coupled with a true residential college experience, can be an exemplar. Not only that, the development of a completely new college will provide a way of experimenting with aspects of liberal education that might prove attractive for introduction back at Yale.

The new college also provides an opportunity to experiment with methods of pedagogy — with effective new ways to teach and learn. It strengthens the bridge between Asia and Yale in New Haven for students and scholars. And finally, it helps to make potential students and scholars more aware of Yale University in a part of the world that is already investing in ways to augment and improve higher education, and make it available to more and more students in coming decades.

The Yale faculty members who worked on exploring a framework for the new curriculum were as intrigued as I am about the possibility of a new curriculum that intentionally integrates Western and Asian perspectives. There is also excitement about imagining a common general education program for the entire student body, which could be more easily implemented on the smaller planned scale — only 1,000 students — of Yale-NUS College.

Yale has been interested in global engagement for quite some time. It’s been one of Yale’s major goals during the last decade, and it is reflected in many initiatives that we’ve undertaken, especially in the last seven or eight years, including the expectation that undergraduates will have an international experience at least once during their years at Yale, as well as the financial aid to support it. It includes the establishment of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the expansion of the MacMillan Center, and the India Initiative and many others. It also includes the increased numbers of international students in the Yale College student body. In that context, the University has been very interested in having an impact on higher education worldwide, and Yale-NUS is an exciting next step.

Yale has never before embarked on this kind of collaboration with an outside institution. Why did Yale choose the National University of Singapore?

When our colleagues at the National University of Singapore first approached us, we were intrigued to learn more about their vision for the new college. We were quickly impressed by their commitment to create an outstanding college to introduce liberal education with a full residential college setting. We have collaborated successfully with NUS before, and we know they are good partners (they are one of the international universities in our Summer School, and NUS has been one of our fellow members in the International Alliance of Research Universities.) Also, NUS is considered one of the leading research universities outside of the US and Europe. The language of instruction is English, which we think is very important because we want most of the new faculty to have studied or taught in liberal arts settings-which means that many of the faculty will be English-speakers. And NUS has phenomenal leadership.

The Yale faculty committee co-chaired by Professors Tony Kronman and Haun Saussy that explored the contours of a possible curriculum during the last academic year were very interested in devising a new approach to undergraduate education that would involve a synthesis of Asian sources as well as European and American sources. Asia is a region where students have traditionally had to select a field of study or profession when they enter university. Although there are efforts at broadening the curriculum, there is no “general education” program as we know it; no approach to education that emphasizes breadth as we practice it. Instead, the focus is much more pre-professional: Students choose a career path early on and must stick to it. So we saw an opportunity to introduce a liberal education to a part of the world where the undergraduate educational model may be poised for change. At the same time, we saw an opportunity to develop a new frontier in liberal education that integrates Eastern and Western traditions, with the hope that this new approach might eventually feed back to, and change, what we do in New Haven, and perhaps what other colleges and universities do. So it is not just a one-way street.

We also like the National University of Singapore because of their real track record of successful partnership with educational institutions we admire. My former colleague — and Yale’s former Provost — Susan Hockfield, is now president of MIT. She is very positive about the decade-long program MIT has had with NUS. Another Yale graduate, Ricky Revesz, who is dean of the NYU Law School, is enthusiastic about his school’s master’s program at NUS. Johns Hopkins is another peer institution with an impressive program with NUS. The same goes for Duke, which introduced a graduate medical school in collaboration with NUS, and President Brodhead tells us that he is very pleased with it.

How does Yale-NUS College fit into Yale’s larger plans in Asia?

We will continue to look for partnerships and programs in Asia, but it’s unlikely we would do something else at this scale. We will certainly continue current programs, for example, our Peking University program, which allows Yale students to live for a semester or a year and study with Peking University students. We’ll continue to promote the kinds of collaborative research laboratories we have at Peking University and at Fudan University. We will continue to expand curricular offerings on the Yale campus in New Haven that are focused on Asia. And of course our programs that create study abroad research and internship opportunities for students in Asia, such as Bulldogs in Beijing, will certainly continue. We see the Yale-NUS venture as a natural complement to these other programs.

How will a Yale-NUS College education be different from that at NUS or Yale?

It will differ from the undergraduate education at NUS and most Asian colleges and universities, in that students will not need to declare a major early, and it will not be focused on pre-professional training. Rather, it will be modeled on the kind of liberal education that you see at most American liberal arts colleges and universities like Yale. Similar to Yale College, there will be an emphasis on integrating the curriculum with extra-curricular opportunities that help to build leadership skills and an emphasis on smaller residential college communities, which typically do not exist at Asian universities to the extent that it does in New Haven.

Having said that, it will differ from Yale College’s approach, in that it will have a common general education curriculum in the first two years shared by all students on campus, emphasizing the synthesis of Asian and Western ideas. Singapore represents both a geographical and a multicultural crossroads, and the curriculum at Yale-NUS College will be a crossroads in and of itself, because it will integrate ideas from both Eastern and Western cultures and traditions. All of that will be new and different from Yale College. But similar to Yale College, we very much hope to attract an international student body.

How will Yale faculty be involved in Yale-NUS?

Yale faculty members are involved in several different ways. First of all, the planning for this partnership very much involved Yale faculty. They participated in three committees focused on curriculum, residential college and extra-curricular life, and faculty development. We will be looking to members of the faculty to continue to collaborate with colleagues at NUS to help develop the curriculum.

Second, we will invite Yale faculty to teach at Yale-NUS College, for either mini-courses for two weeks, or for a semester or a year. I am delighted that Professor Charles Bailyn, a gifted educator and imaginative scientist, has agreed to be the inaugural dean of faculty. And Yale faculty will be involved on the search committees for hiring permanent faculty for this new venture. Colleagues have already been calling President Levin, Professor Bailyn, and me saying that they want to volunteer to teach, which they feel will be an exciting opportunity in a new environment.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Media Contact

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555