When Benjamin Franklin College opens next fall, college head Charles Bailyn ’81 will once again work to develop a campus community from scratch.
Bailyn graduated from Yale College with a degree in astronomy and physics, and returned to campus in 1990 as a professor in both subjects. Most recently, he has served as the inaugural dean of the faculty of Yale-NUS College since 2011. In that role, Bailyn said, he learned how to build communal bonds and traditions without inheriting an existing legacy.
“For the past three or four years, I’ve been part of creating a new community of learning,” Bailyn said. “And it wasn’t just a couple new residential colleges, it was the entire institution. I’ve seen the process of how you generate new traditions, and some general approaches are highly relevant.”
Bailyn said he expects to be in the dining hall often and to talk with students about their long-term goals and dearest passions. As an undergraduate himself, he focused on two vastly different passions: singing and studying the sciences.
Bailyn and his wife, history lecturer Rebecca Tannenbaum GRD ’97, who have already resettled in New Haven, said their most important goal is creating a welcoming community.
“It’s a cliché, and the admissions office likes to play it up, but the idea that your residential college is a home, we want to make that true,” Tannenbaum said.
Bailyn and Tannenbaum will assume leadership of a college that has already generated significant controversy as a result of its namesake. After University President Peter Salovey announced the name of Benjamin Franklin College in April, many expressed dissatisfaction with Franklin’s slave-owning record and weak University ties.
Even so, Bailyn said he has been reading more about Franklin, who he described as “fabulous” and “remarkable” for having been both a researcher in the humanities as well as a major political figure.
“I think Benjamin Franklin is a namesake I can support and that I do support, and I’ll try to do whatever I can to persuade others that it’s worth supporting,” Bailyn said.
Bailyn’s colleagues, family and friends described him as a listener and strategist who will serve students well.
Salovey called Bailyn a “tremendous scholar and a terrific human being,” and Meg Urry — a professor in physics and astronomy who has known Bailyn and his family for decades — said Bailyn’s tactical mind will help students navigate the challenges of Yale.
“He’s an incredibly strategic guy. If I have a complex problem — I’m talking about a political situation or some issue I don’t know how to handle — he instantly knows what I should do. And when he describes it, I realize that’s exactly what I should do,” Urry said. “But he’s also a tremendous leader. He really sees where things have to go and why. It’s a very valuable perspective that not everyone has. He’s also so personable.”
Stephen Pitti ’91, head of Ezra Stiles College and a colleague of Tannenbaum’s in the History Department, said Bailyn is a “terrific teacher and energetic citizen” of the University. He said Tannenbaum will be an “indispensable presence” in the residential college as well.
Tannenbaum said their time immersed in the Yale-NUS community helped convince them to take the helm of Franklin College, as the role enable them to remain at the center of college life.
While the role of associate head of college is fluid, Tannenbaum said she expects to be more involved than most.
“We wouldn’t have gone forward with this if it were just going to be Charles leading the college,” Tannenbaum said. “I’m really looking forward to playing an active role and creating a community. That’s something we were doing at Yale-NUS. We had to build everything from scratch. It was a great experience, and we’re planning to do it again.”
Urry said the differing academic interests of Tannenbaum and Bailyn will make them resources to a wider range of students, both academically and socially regarding college activities and guest speakers.
“Their family embodies the range of interests of Yale,” Urry said. “She was on the humanities side, he’s on the sciences side. So they’ll provide multiple outlets for students.”
Bailyn said while Franklin College might attract more science students initially due to its location on Science Hill, he expects it to be as diverse as any other in the long-term. He recognized that some students are concerned that Franklin College is far from the other colleges, though he sees its creation as an opportunity to bring Science Hill closer to the center of undergraduate life.
“I think one of the problems Yale has had dating back to when I was a student was the geographical separation and therefore psychological disconnect between science and the epicenters of the undergraduate experience,” he said. “I think that the geography of the new colleges is actually going to make campus smaller and more connected because of the way they will connect Science Hill back into central campus.”