I Want a World-Class University NOW

When you look through the newspaper here, the most striking thing is how many ads you see for education-related things. "Tuition" services to help you kid pass his A-levels. "Twinning" programs to get you an Australian or British degree from the comfort of Singapore. And then there's the news items about how X local college has a new partnership with Y international university to develop a truly unique, world-class university environment right here in Singapore. Singapore University of Technology and Design + MIT = Profit!

The university bit is the most contentious. Singapore is a rich and highly developed country but it does not yet have a university system that includes a Harvard, an Oxbridge, a Heidelberg, a Sorbonne, a Bologna, or a Tokyo. The best Singaporean students get government scholarships to go overseas to somewhere in the US or the UK. But Singapore wants to change that and it is not content to wait: the government wants to create world-class universities right here, and right now. I heard a rumor that one local university has an explicit institutional mission to become "like Harvard or Chicago" within the next decade.

I'm skeptical that doing so is possible. I don't think that great universities can be established by administrative fiat–or more precisely, they probably can be, but it takes hundreds of years for them to become great. But OK, let's say you're Singapore and you don't like to be told that something isn't possible. You want to make great universities in a really short amount of time. How do you do it? It seems to me that there are a couple strategies.

  1. Salaries. Offer sky-high salaries to attract top-notch scholars.
  2. Tenure. Make tenure standards really strict so that you encourage greatness from your productive junior faculty and kick out anyone who doesn't pass the bar. You're left with the cream of the crop.
  3. Support. Create the type of environment that makes research easy. This is the KAUST strategy.

In various ways, the government here is trying all three. But they are destined to fail. (The tenure idea is particularly idiotic: if someone can get tenure at Chicago, that person will work at Chicago, not at some local uni.) I think about myself as an example. I'm not a top notch scholar and I would never get tenure at a very top institution, but I'm the type of person that they should want because I do work on a timely topic that is relevant to local interests, and despite whatever quirks I seem to fit in very well with the mainstream of my discipline. But I just don't know if there's anything that you could do to make me want to move to, say, the National University of Singapore, the flagship place here. Let's say that they offered me 10-times my current yearly salary, unlimited research support, and the promise that I could direct the political science department in however I saw fit (overseeing new hires, graduate training, undergraduate curriculum, etc.). That still wouldn't attract me here permanently, and I like Singapore.

What happens is that Singaporean universities are getting pretty good at landing late-career academics who already have raised their families, made their signature contributions, and established themselves in their fields. (An example.) These folks are attracted to Singapore because they get a great salary, a comfortable lifestyle, and the freedom to do whatever they want, taking on as few students as they like and publishing as little as they like and in whatever venues they see fit. Maybe they're also from somewhere around here and it's convenient to get home. But that's not a recipe of institution-building, that's a recipe for creating little intellectual islands within a loose institutional structure.

I know that this sounds dopey, but what you need to do to make a great university is to find a collection of people who are committed to living in a particular place and who have a shared vision about scholarship. Seriously. They have to want to work at that university for its own sake, regardless of location, salary, support, etc. (That, for example, is how you can sustain globally competitive research universities in Ithaca and Rochester, NY. It's not because of location/salary/weather/support.) It's how Heidelberg, Bologna, Oxford, Harvard, and other such institutions got started. And of course it takes time. Cash, high standards, and flush research accounts will get you a couple top scholars, but even they will only get you so far.

Comments 3

  1. Matt December 22, 2010

    I don’t doubt the accuracy of this post, but I do doubt that you wouldn’t move to Singapore for 10 times the salary. Doing so for a mere 7 years would presumably equip you with the financial resources to move back to the U.S. and operate your family and your professional life without regard to income. That’s virtually impossible to turn down.

    Or is something about living abroad? Or the distance? Or the nation itself? What exactly is the outer limit of where you’d work for a half dozen years. Would you go to Alaska?

    I think it’s much easier to theoretically resist that kind of money than to actually turn down a seven-figure offer.


  2. tp253 December 22, 2010

    I agree with all that you’ve written, but in the post I was trying to make the point that I wouldn’t move to Singapore *permanently* for 10 times the salary. (At the risk of making the following scenario impossible by writing it here) I’d totally take the opportunity to make a boatload of cash for a couple of years, but that’s only for a couple of years, and I would only do so with the understanding from my current employer that I’d be welcome to come back some day. (Or alternatively, the strong belief that I could land a nice job somewhere else back in the US. Or alternatively, I’m already 65 years old and am about to retire anyway.)

    In fact, Yale’s new partnership with NUS in Singapore is designed to give Yale faculty the opportunity to do just that.

    My broader point is that, as far as I can buy people, but you can’t buy devotion to the institution and its educational mission, and that’s what you need to make a great university.

  3. tp253 December 22, 2010

    Oh and to answer your questions, I think at this stage the distance is the real problem (holding the academic freedom/integrity issue aside, which is to be frank another big problem). Singapore is FAR. Alaska (or, say, England) would be more doable. But there’s also the issue of what does JPep do. That’s why moving so far away is so unattractive as a proposition at this point in time.

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