We’ve been able to experiment and try different things and without having to ask permission. We have a lot of flexibility in terms of budgets. To some extent we’re bound by what the capitation grants or research grants are for. But to a large extent we have a pot of money that comes from a variety of funding sources and the administration together with the trustees can decide how we allocate it. So we may allocate more in this direction one time and more in that direction another time. And I’ll compare this say with the United States state universities with which I’m most familiar. Most of their budgeting is line item so when the legislature approves a budget for the university of such and such a state, that means if you’ve got a million dollars in this line for library acquisitions, and you only need $700,000, you can’t take the excess $300,000 and use it to buy equipment for the medical laboratories because that’s taking it from one line to another.
We have that flexibility. We can make reasonable decisions about how you allocate and deal with budgets and that’s a very important thing. We also have a lot of flexibility on internal curriculum development. Now if we’re going to start a new school or go off in some new direction, we have to present a case to the Ministry of Education after trustee approval, and explain why we want to do that and get the okay. But otherwise we operate really quite independently.
What happened in March is I was contacted about my ability to serve as a special advisor to the Chairman of the board on certain terms and I emailed back that I would be pleased to do that but that I was stepping down as deputy dean. This was to Ho Kwon Ping. I wrote back and said, “You would have no idea I’m stepping down as deputy dean and I’m having scholarly leave for next year, what’s owed me.”
So I said perhaps, so I would be happy to do what you were asking and I have the time to do it but you might want the person who’s the deputy dean of the Wharton School, and if that’s the case, I understand completely. And then 48 hours later, I got an email saying essentially well then we’ll make you this offer and the offer was would you be the first president.
My earliest contact with Singapore was in 1984. I used to work for an institution called INSEAD, which is a global business school located in France. And INSEAD had a Euro-Asia Centre, small centre that was doing both teaching and research in Southeast Asia mainly, in those days.
Then because of my interest in Asia, at some moment in time in 1995, the institution asked me to become the director of that Euro-Asia Centre, that particular centre that I was referring to before, which then brought me very often to this part of the world.
And that’s when I started coming here more than on an occasional basis to do a bit of teaching or a bit of research. But when the board asked me to do a feasibility study for INSEAD—of what to do with these activities of the Euro-Asia Centre and with the activities of INSEAD in Asia—I remember in 1996 I took on that task from the board to do that feasibility study. I spent a lot of time in this part of the world, visited eleven cities, talked to the equivalents of the Economic Development Board in the different countries here, to try to figure out what to do.
It all took a bit more time than we had hoped for, but in September 1998 we signed a deal between EDB, as a representative of the Singapore Government, and INSEAD to set up a campus of INSEAD here. So I came to live here, in December of 1998, so that sort of gives my first exposure to Singapore.
My first contact with SMU of any kind came about ten years ago. At that time I was provost at Emory University in Atlanta, and I was a member of the Emory faculty for 28 years before coming to Singapore, and served 12 years as dean of the law school, and then for a couple of years as interim provost during a transition period. And while I was provost I was approached about coming here to Singapore.
Ron [Ron Frank] sent me an email and asked if I could come over and spend about a week consulting with him and other members of the SMU faculty about several matters, one of which was about the possibility of creating a law school. And so I came in August of 2002 and spent ten days here.
I must say that I came away from a week of meetings within SMU and with leaders of the legal profession convinced that it would be a long time before there would be a second law school in Singapore because then, it did not seem that there was a great deal of support for the concept within the leadership of the profession at that moment, although there was some discussion about the possibility of postgraduate studies in law and some specialisations in that area. But I wrote a report for Ron and others about how the law faculty could develop and things it could do, and I remember Ron saying, “If we don’t have a law school we will have the best law department of any business school in the world.”
About 10, 11 months later Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm, contacted me and said, would you be interested in being considered to be president of SMU. And this was kind of a bolt out of the blue. But having been here and having seen what was going on and then being presented with the opportunity to be on the ground floor of the development of a new institution, it was very attractive, plus Susan [Susan Hunter] and I both had interests in Asia. So the opportunity to be in Asia, and with a new university, and with all of the ideas behind SMU was really quite attractive. By the first part of 2004 it had all been sorted out and agreed upon that I would come to begin on September 1st 2004.
It was sort of a real immersion. In other words, the day I arrived, there were 14 issues plopped on my desk to solve.
Firstly, we had no offices. The organizing committee was physically located in a room, one large room admittedly, of Wah Chang House, the chairman’s offices. And they couldn’t get one more person in there. So one thing that had to be done very very quickly was to find for a two year period, let’s say, the administrative home of the university. So I remember going around, not knowing Singapore that well, but going around looking at possible places so we could sign the lease. That was [how] we ended up in Goldbell Towers.
Another one, though and this was truly major, it had been assumed that we would be able to go into what was then the National Institute of Education, NIE, which was at what was called the Bukit Timah campus. And so in June of 1999, it was assumed, up until a few months before, that NIE would move out rather quickly and somehow this could be renovated, or at least some part of it could be renovated quickly so that we could start students in June of 2000. So we go out to NIE and are told that, “This is completely impossible because their new building had been delayed.” Once again I remembered, it was a day when it poured rain very, very heavily. It was just like, “It’s impossible.” So once again, where would we be? Secondly it was evident to me upon visiting NIE that it would need very substantial renovation and I mean very substantial. So then the next question is, “Where’s our temporary campus?” This became a wonderful question of dealing with the Ministry of Land [should be Urban Redevelopment Authority, URA] and all sorts of things because there isn’t that much land in Singapore that was suitable and we would be needing a temporary place, so that was going on. Tan Teck Meng was a wonderful help, so good at negotiating with so many people, just knew everything. Curiously it was the person who was head of NIE at that point, who made the suggestion. He said, “Let me point out a parcel here.” He said, “This you think is part of Bukit Timah campus but it is not,” and put his finger on the map and that’s where our temporary campus called Evans Road was located. But he was the one who identified it. He was very helpful.
The next thing that was going on, all these things were going on simultaneously, the next thing that was going on was of course the planning for the permanent campus, which had started already but there was this issue of where we would be. I strongly wanted a city campus, so in the summer, it must have been July or August, Marina Bay had essentially been offered as a possibility. And I was not the one who suggested Bras Basah Park, I mean I would not have known, but when it was mentioned, as if to say, this is another area that would fit, I said, “Well that would be perfect.” Well, the amazing thing is the Government agreed. What I didn’t realize is this would, would be so controversial. So that was rather humorous in one way because I didn’t realize this.
And also there was another event that occurred. The National Library was located on Stamford Road, and it was being announced right then that the National Library would be torn down, and for their current headquarters, but in the public’s mind, because it had just been announced that SMU would be on Bras Basah Park, somehow it became connected that we were also linked to the demolition of the National Library. Actually it [SMU] had nothing to do with it. It had been planned for some time, and had to do also with the tunnel that would be going through Fort Canning Hill. So it was very interesting to encounter that, but I remember going to the old National Library to essentially convey to the librarians that although we had nothing to do with it, we did regret any inconvenience due them. And I still remember, finally someone said, “You do realize, Professor, we’re very happy to be moving.” And that was very funny, because they were saying that this building is completely inadequate for a modern library of a nation like Singapore and therefore we would have to move to a new building and it has nothing to do with SMU. But that led Tan Teck Meng to realize since they would be our neighbour that at the beginning they could assist in running our library and that was a very fruitful collaboration. So this was all maybe in a two month period.
And leading up also we wanted a really impressive beginning, so let’s talk about the photo there of the inaugural convocation. That was my phrase, the inaugural convocation. In the United States, the opening convocation for some universities is not huge but a rather ceremonial thing. Since we would not have a graduation, a commencement for some time, I said, “Well let’s have, make convocation, opening convocation a big thing.” And that’s where we then seized upon the idea of having this gala, sort of inaugural convocation. It was Ho Kwon Ping who selected the site, the physical location of the university would be where we were having this instead of in a nice place that was air conditioned like Suntec City. The planning that was involved in having to put, you know get the tent and all this, remember this is a very small group of people doing all this organizing to put on a major convocation under a tent on Bras Basah Park, on a day by the way when it was pouring with rain. And we had guests flying in for this, and we decided to have some very exciting academic conferences at the same times. It was just quite amazing, and the Ministers would be there, Deputy Prime Ministers etc. It was very hectic.
The other thing when I look at this photo -- the small things that you never think of when they say you know if you agree to be the first president. Selecting the gowns that we wear, the academic gowns, but I’m very proud of the fact that they have zippers so that everybody looks very neat. The British don’t, things are always gaping, and I say women always look terrible in them. That’s why you have such a neat appearance except for the ones that are British, which are the ministers and the chair.
And the other thing was the mace which I had never in my life thought about. Tan Teck Meng and myself with the mace. Oh by the way the first six months, we picked the logo too, the tangram lion and that was a whole thing about the logo. So [in the photo] all these things I look at. I even liked the color blue and gold. That’s why we have blue and gold so it was a very…all these things. But it was a major feat to put on that opening convocation but very, very exciting. By the way, the person standing next to me, who came over, that was the Dean of the Wharton School, right there.
My attitude toward leadership or management or whatever has always been, that if you’ve got a good person in a job, let him or her do the job. Don’t get in the way. Now it may be that this particular dean has some different ideas from that one, but you have to let that play out and see how it goes. But not to be looking over people’s shoulders all the time about things, within certain broad guidelines. I mean there were some clear values that we wanted to maintain and structures and ideas about SMU. And so deans and others would be expected to adhere to that, but generally let them run their own programmes and stuff as much as possible. And the same for people working in other areas.
SMU was a real experiment in terms of the curriculum for Singapore and the whole approach and style to it. And one of the responsibilities as president was to make sure that the integrity of that experiment was maintained, that we didn’t just sort of fall off into one pattern or another because faculty were accustomed to the way they used to do things or the way it was done where they were [prior to SMU]. So maintaining the integrity of that concept was very important.
Second was recruiting people. Now I am the president, I’m not going to be out recruiting assistant professors for all the different disciplines. But had to make sure that the deans had in place the processes and the funding to be able to do so and do so effectively and well. And to maintain an identity that was Singaporean but to make sure that we recruited people from all over the world to come in to the faculty, rather than just looking locally. Not that one should be negative about anything local but rather, as the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education said at that time, “We don’t want the universities just churning their faculties around amongst themselves. We want you to bring fresh talent in from overseas, if you can.” Some who may be Singaporeans who’d gotten their PhDs there.
So faculty recruitment, maintaining the integrity of the experiment itself, and attracting the best possible students for SMU. You know we were still a start-up, and two very fine, distinguished, older universities, so we were in pretty heavy competition with them to get good students. And then behind all this is something that presidents always have to worry about and that is long-term financial stability. We had a lot of start-up money and that’s all well and good, but the president has to look 15, 20 years in the future to make sure that the foundation is there for financial stability, long-term, not just next year.
So number one, there's a junior class that need to get recruited. There are faculty that need to get hired for that purpose. If that's going to get done, they need deans. Two schools existed accounting and the business school and Janice had gotten those in place. But they sort of needed more support in their recruiting activity. But there was a proposal, which I don't think was officially approved when I became president, for an economics and social science school. But there was no dean, and no search process for a dean. So one of my immediate tasks was to find a leader for that school.
I mean we were growing at a rate, in staff and faculty, of around a third a year. And one of the issues that I was concerned about, and still am as the university develops, is the pace of development. Because, when you start it, here you are, adding students and years to a programme, and you're adding sort of a third of the content to the programmes in one fell swoop, and recruiting all the faculty, and getting the curriculum for that. At the same time, there's two new schools going on, and there isn't magic to print people who are academics who have the competency to manage all that process. So, we were thin on the management side, I would say, in those years. Again, a credit to the faculty, the staff, and the students a bunch of compulsive workers a lot of sweat equity was put into that university by every possible constituency that was involved: students, staff, the faculty, the administration, even the board, as it got more swept up in the affairs of the university. It was unreal.
I will answer that question on the educational scene and on the larger scene. So if I take first the larger environment—and I have been asked this question several times since I am back now for four months here in Singapore—I have boiled it down to four main differences. First of all, there’re many more people here. The country has grown in number of people. And you feel that. I find it personally—I’m a city person—I find that actually attractive, that there is more buzz, there is more activity, there are more people around.
Secondly, you can see the investment in infrastructure, the physical appearance of Singapore has changed. And I’m not only referring to Marina Bay Sands or what’s happening on Sentosa, but actually SMU, in the middle of the city, is a major change in the visual appearance of Singapore.
Third difference is something with which I have an ambivalent attitude to. That is, visually you see that this has become a richer country. You see more display of wealth. Is this because the country has become more wealthy or because people have become more conspicuous consumers? It’s probably a little bit of everything, but that’s my third observation.
And the fourth observation is that it has been a place with a lot of buzz. There’s a lot more cultural activity, arts activity, and of all types. It’s not only that I like classical music, but it’s not only that the SSO [Singapore Symphony Orchestra] has improved in its performances, but it’s at the same time, there is much more jazz. Some of the top singers of the world pass through, partially because of the casinos I suppose, but there are all kinds of activities. And also the investment that the Government makes in education for arts, it has changed considerably. So that is very different. And this last remark leads me then to focus more on the educational scene.
The three universities, SMU, NUS [National University of Singapore] and NTU [Nanyang Technological University] have changed dramatically. SMU, obviously, from nothing to what it is today. But also NUS and NTU have transformed themselves into clearly world-class institutions, or institutions that play on the world’s scene whose research is recognised by people elsewhere in the world. It’s interesting for me to see how eager some academics are to come and work here, something that was not the case in 1998, 1999, when I had to convince faculty from INSEAD to come and work here. But now it’s much easier to say, why don’t you come and spend part of your career as an academic in Singapore? So there’s been a dramatic change in the educational scene. And obviously the creation of the fourth university, SUTD [Singapore University of Technology and Design], and then the fifth institution, SIT [Singapore Institute of Technology], that attracts foreign universities here—it all builds up into a much more vibrant and forward-looking educational scene. I was saying earlier that in the ’90s, I thought that the higher education here was relatively middle-of-the-road, good quality, but to train local people at middle level, and the elite were going abroad. What I see now is the elite from elsewhere coming to study in Singapore. Some of the elite researchers in bioengineering or mechanical engineering, or whatever, nanotechnology—they’re coming here to Singapore. It is a dramatic change in the educational scene which I think is very good for us as SMU.