SINGAPORE — Yale-NUS named history professor and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Tan Tai Yong as its new president at a meeting of its governing board on March 14, concluding a seven-month global search that ultimately saw the college promote from within.
Tan replaces founding president Pericles Lewis, who will return to New Haven in the fall as Yale’s vice president for global strategy and deputy provost for international affairs. The new president will take office on July 1.
Two years before the appointment, Tan, then a Nominated Member of Parliament — an appointed, nonpartisan member of the Singaporean Parliament who does not represent any constituency — qualified his support for the annual budget with a call to consider the challenges of an unpredictable future.
At a March 14 press conference announcing the college governing board’s unanimous decision to appoint him as Lewis’ successor, Tan echoed themes similar to his 2015 speech as he spoke of the gravity of Yale-NUS’ role in light of the current global political moment.
“The challenges that [Singapore] will face, domestically and externally, can no longer be solved by science and technology alone,” he said. “At a time when the Oxford Dictionary makes ‘post-truth’ its 2016 International Word of the Year, and when information is increasingly used to obfuscate rather than to enlighten, it is all the more crucial for us to cultivate a new intellectual community, one whose members are intellectually agile, mentally robust and who have a deep sense of social responsibility.”
A MAN OF INTEGRITY
Tan has been closely involved with Yale-NUS since its inception in 2011, as he co-chaired the committee that hired the college’s inaugural faculty members and helped shape the school’s common curriculum. Having served as executive vice president for academic affairs since October 2014, he has reported directly to Lewis on the college’s academic and co-curricular aspects, and oversaw a near-doubling in the size of the Yale-NUS faculty.
A historian specializing in South and Southeast Asian history, Tan holds degrees from the National University of Singapore and Cambridge University. In the 25 years since he began teaching at NUS, Tan has served in a number of administrative roles, including a three-year stint as head of the History Department and six years as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. He is a two-time recipient of the university’s Annual Teaching Excellence Awards.
“We considered many outstanding candidates, but in the end, we concluded that the best candidate was right here,” said Yale-NUS presidential search committee co-chair and former University President Richard Levin at the announcement of the board’s decision. “Those of us on the search committee were impressed with how dedicated he is and how tenaciously he will fight to ensure that nothing dilutes the programs that set this college apart, and make it distinctive and more consequential than other liberal arts colleges today.”
In interviews with the News, those who have worked with Tan painted an unfailingly positive picture of a dedicated scholar and administrator.
NUS South Asian Studies professor Gyanesh Kudaisya first worked with Tan about 20 years ago on a book project, and remembers Tan as a meticulous and caring collaborator. Since then, the two have taught both undergraduate and graduate courses together.
“[Tan] is able to build an instant rapport with students and has the ability to make them feel at ease,” Kudaisya said in an email. “Yet, he follows high standards in content as well as pedagogy.
Joanne Roberts, who works under Tan’s purview as associate dean of faculty, said she was “thrilled” at Tan’s appointment, citing his deep connections with NUS and “total commitment” to his administrative work, while NUS sociology professor Ho Kong Chong spoke fondly of his experience collaborating with Tan on a study of the social security system in Singapore.
According to Yale-NUS Student Government President Saza Faradilla YNUS ’18, Tan also has a similarly positive reputation among the student body.
“[Professor] Tan is an extremely humble and down-to-earth man,” she said in an email to the News. “The student body is enthused about his appointment and [is] very much looking forward to it.”
A self-professed fan of kung fu movies, Tan is well-known and well-liked in Singaporean civil society, and has served on several boards in the past three decades. His 11 current appointments include the honorary chairmanship of the National Museum of Singapore, membership on two separate committees convened by the Ministry of Education and a presence on the boards of both the Young Sikh Association as well as the Catholic Junior College School Management Committee.
Beyond Tan’s intellectual abilities, David Chan, a fellow member of the Singaporean Ministry of Education’s Social Science Research Council, said in an email that Tan’s character will be a key asset in his leadership of Yale-NUS.
“He is very well-respected and well-liked because he is a man of integrity,” Chan said. “You can trust him to be dependable in delivering what he promised, say what he means, and means what he says.”
For University of Brunei Darussalam professor Mohammed Mizanur Rahman, Tan is the ideal leader for a student-centered institution like Yale-NUS. Rahman, who was a research scholar at NUS’ Institute of South Asian Studies when Tan was director and collaborated regularly with him, fondly recalled Tan inviting him and more than 20 colleagues from the ISAS to visit the Yale-NUS site in 2011.
“This guided tour by him took several hours to cover the whole place,” Rahman said. “He showed us Yale-NUS like his own home.”
In addition to Tan’s dedication to his own academic and administrative work — “he won’t leave office at 5 to go play golf,” Rahman said — Rahman noted that Tan paid great attention to ensuring the advancement of his students and colleagues alike.
“He was like a guru to me,” Rahman said. “He trained me, nurtured me and guided my career.”
AN UPWARD TRAJECTORY
Soon after Yale-NUS holds its first ever graduation ceremony in May, Lewis will return to New Haven in the fall. His departure marks the complete replacement of Yale-NUS’ inaugural senior leadership team.
As president, Lewis oversaw the enrollment of more than 700 students and the construction of the college’s permanent campus. He has also served as a prominent advocate for the college and for liberal arts education in Singapore in the face of criticism over academic freedom in the country.
At the press conference announcing his appointment, Tan expressed his gratitude to Lewis, noting that he “placed the college on an upward trajectory.”
“He may leave the college, but the college will not leave him,” Tan said. “In this new capacity as the inaugural vice president for global strategy and deputy provost for international affairs, I am sure we can count on him to advocate for, and support, the development of this very special college.”
University President Peter Salovey, who sits on Yale-NUS’ governing board, was also present at the announcement of Tan’s appointment. In a speech, Salovey said he is “delighted” with Tan’s appointment, and spoke of the importance of Yale-NUS as one of Yale’s most significant international initiatives.
Salovey noted that Yale has committed to increasing the number of slots available for Yale-NUS students to study at Yale College and make the New Haven campus available to Yale-NUS faculty members for a one-semester or one-year sabbatical. He also acknowledged a need for more support to secure Yale-NUS’ long-term financial health.
“We have said since the opening of Yale-NUS [that] it is a community of learning, founded by two great universities, in Asia, for the world,” Salovey said. “It seems right that we have the first two presidents coming from our founding universities.”
This post was updated to reflect the version that ran in print on March 27.