Catching up with Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis
He’s a scholar of literature who deepened Yale’s international engagement in his roles as vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives, and he influenced education in Asia as the founding president of Yale-NUS College. He has mentored a generation of students of comparative literature and English, and, as chair or member of several COVID-planning committees, helped steer Yale through the most turbulent days of the pandemic as the university rose to the challenge of educating far-flung students.
And today, as dean of Yale College, Pericles Lewis is reengaging undergraduates in long-held traditions and encouraging new or revised ones, welcoming new residential college heads, and generally invigorating life and learning at Yale. He’s also writing a new book.
As his first academic year as dean draws to a close, Yale News recently spoke with Lewis about his priorities, the specialness of a Yale education, and his latest encounter with “The Great Gatsby.” The interview is condensed and edited.
Now that you’ve got nearly two full semesters under your belt as dean of Yale College, has holding this post brought any big surprises for you?
Pericles Lewis: To tell you the truth, I have spent 25 years at Yale, so I wouldn’t say there were any big shockers. But it has been even more fun than I expected.
You’ve said that your goal is to ensure that Yale offers the best undergraduate education. What are some of the elements that make a Yale education unique?
Lewis: On the academic side, you have faculty who are very committed to undergraduate teaching as part of their persona and their own sense of their profession. You have the resources of a great university, including the arts schools and the art and library collections, the terrific work of the medical school and the other professional schools, and top researchers in the Graduate School. And then on the undergraduate student life side, the residential college system is really a great support for students. The extracurricular activities are numerous and exciting, and there are lots of opportunities for leadership. Altogether Yale is a thriving community!
Do you have any specific goals yourself with regard to undergraduate education?
Lewis: Yes. Number one is supporting the residential college system and finding ways to continue to strengthen it.
We’ve been through a challenging period with COVID, not only in residential life but in academic life, too, so there’s been a need for a reset in expectations and traditions. I have viewed this year as a year for people to reestablish some norms. The good news is that I’m very lucky to become dean at a time when students, faculty, and staff are all interested in doing that. It's not going to be exactly the way it was before COVID, but I’m focused on helping to reestablish some of those traditions and opportunities for interaction that we lost during these COVID years.
Academically, we have a lot of opportunity with the new developments in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. We’ve been talking about how to strengthen undergraduate engineering education at Yale by considering how the educational program can be enhanced as we build the new engineering campus. And while our science education is excellent, we also have opportunities in other STEM fields. For example, we are strengthening education in data literacy. And continuing to strengthen humanities and social sciences and arts education through partnerships with the superb art and library collections I mentioned earlier is another great opportunity.
People are doing great work at Yale. Our job is to facilitate it and make sure that the faculty are able to offer an excellent education to their undergraduates.
You’ve had an international outlook in your previous position as vice president for global strategy and vice provost with responsibility for research on international matters. A special feature of a Yale undergraduate education is a focus on ensuring that every student has the opportunity to study, work, or do research abroad. Why is that so important?
Lewis: It’s a terrific experience to just broaden the mind, and in that regard it’s a really important educational opportunity for students. Student travel did get disrupted by COVID, and so a good number of our students have never been abroad, or only briefly.
We’ve been finding ways to make travel possible. We have some excellent summer programs that involve venturing abroad, and we saw a big uptick in interest in the summer programs in 2022. I’m hopeful that those programs will also flourish this coming summer.
Recent enhancements to Yale's traditionally generous financial aid policies have been instrumental in increasing the diversity of the undergraduate student body, which has been a very important university goal. How does this benefit the university?
Lewis: The university is best positioned if it’s able to serve the whole community. There have been a lot of efforts over the last 60 years to improve the extent to which Yale reflects the diversity of our country. But there’s still a long way to go. There are talented people in every corner, of every background, and of every socioeconomic class.
We need to be attracting talented people from all backgrounds in order to ensure that we’re training excellent leaders for tomorrow.
Prior to taking on the Yale College deanship, you oversaw Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, which supports faculty teaching and student learning. The center aided faculty members in their herculean efforts to transition to remote learning during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons have you learned from that experience?
Lewis: I was so grateful for the work of the professional staff at Poorvu to help us faculty and the graduate student teaching fellows understand how to be effective over Zoom — first just how to install Zoom on your computer, but also how to be an effective teacher. While we’re all really happy to be able to teach in person now, there are things you can learn from that remote experience — for example, breaking up your lecture into shorter units and giving students the opportunity to give feedback.
In particular, people who teach a lecture course as I do got to learn ways to make the lecture more effective rather than just have students listen to somebody speak without interruption for 50 minutes. Zoom is pretty easy for seminars because you can see everybody on your screen. On the other hand, the crisp discussion that can take place in person is slowed down even by the very small delays that are created by people unmuting. So, nobody loves Zoom and we don’t want to make it a permanent part of everybody's life. But it does help with efficiency.
This doesn’t have to do with teaching, but certainly we’ve been able to attract really good audiences to talks and events that we’ve sponsored during the COVID period. I suspect those will trail off because people will prefer to go to live talks. But it is nice when you’re doing something special in New Haven to be able to broadcast it so alumni, parents, and others all over the world can participate.
What advice would you give students about making the most of their time here at Yale?
Lewis: I think there’s almost too much attention paid to “making the most.” Students come in and they want to take a lot of courses. They want to pursue double majors and certificates. They want to participate in every extracurricular activity under the sun and have their social life as well. So I just try and tell students, “You’ve got four years, you don’t have to do it all in your first couple of months. Pace yourself!”
We’re an extroverted community, so giving people time to just rest and pause between events is important. When we consider things like emotional balance and mental health, we see that kids are under a lot of stress these days. And I think our job is to help them lower that stress level.
You’re currently writing a book about liberal education. Tell us about that project.
Lewis: It’s based on the on the course that I teach called “Purposes of College Education.” It’s essentially about the fact that college is meant to serve many purposes in our society — individual character formation, participation in a community, acquiring knowledge, obviously, and preparation for a career. How do these all interact with one another? What is the purpose of college education going forward in this century?
The U.S. was a leader in how many people completed college in the middle of the 20th century, but, unfortunately, we’ve slowed down a little bit relative to others. And then there’s the pressure to make college more vocational. I’m all for preparing students for a successful professional career after they graduate from college. But the broader purpose is the opportunity for self-exploration, the opportunity to learn about what it is to be a citizen. That’s something I’m emphasizing in the book.
At a time when democracy has been threatened in America and around the world, how does a liberal education equip students to become more engaged, responsible citizens in the face of these threats?
Lewis: One of those key parts of college education is preparation for citizenship. That’s been an enduring tradition in American democracy. Colleges have to be somewhat removed from politics so that we’re not taking sides or seen as partisan. College campuses have to be places where students are able to explore challenging issues and debate civic concerns, and that will prepare them for participation in a pluralistic democracy. I admit it’s a democracy that is complicated, and sometimes one becomes pessimistic. But our students will be future leaders of that democracy. So it’s incumbent on us to get them ready.
Literature has been your scholarly focus. Are you currently reading anything for pleasure?
Lewis: I’m really enjoying [Yale lecturer in English] Susan Choi’s book “My Education,” because it’s about a literature Ph.D. student in the 1990s, which is when I was doing my Ph.D. So I relate to it very well. And recently I reread “The Great Gatsby.” It is a book I’ve read a lot of times and remembered vaguely, but I did remember that there are some references to Yale in it. Now that I’m the dean of Yale College, it was funny to re-read it and see how Yale appeared in Fitzgerald’s book, written about a century ago, and to realize that my first knowledge of Yale came not from visiting the campus but from reading “The Great Gatsby” as a teenager.
Any closing thoughts?
Lewis: I just launched a podcast! It’s called “Purposes of College Education.”