Models of Time and Space from Astrophysics and World Cultures
The Foundations of Astrophysical Reality from Across the Centuries
My new astronomy book, entitled Models of Time and Space from Astrophysics and World Cultures has been published by Springer Inc. It is a popular book on physics and astronomy, and documents the ways that human cultures across the centuries mapped and explored our earth, the skies and the universe. It starts with celestial navigation and star maps and continues onwards to innovations that enabled astronomers to unlock the three-dimensional structure of space and map the most distant galaxies using modern telescopes like the JWST. The book also looks at the advances of science in the 19th and 20th centuries that enabled the development of particle physics and quantum mechanics, culminating in the CERN Large Hadron Collider and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Along the way, the development of relativity and the notions of space-time and light cones expanded our notions of space and time to encompass both the smallest and largest physical dimensions but also the earliest times and the ultimate fate of the universe. New results from the JWST are described, as well as the latest discoveries from particle physics. The book explores these topics and more – including conceptions of time, space, and the vacuum from a wide variety of cultures. The book describes how time and space are visualized by diverse cultures, and includes Aboriginal Australian, Polynesian and Hawaiian, Native American, neo-Confucian, and Buddhist perspectives.
The book is available from the publisher at this link: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-27890-7
With my co-author Noah Pickus, we have written a new book entitled The New Global Universities – Reinventing Higher Education for the 21st Century (Princeton). The book is now available for pre-order, and includes detailed accounts of the founding of eight global universities that include Yale-NUS College (Singapore), Olin College of Engineering, Ashesi University (Ghana), Fulbright University Vietnam, NYU Abu Dhabi, Minerva University, Ashoka University (India) and African Leadership University. I will post more about the book later, but we are excited to have written this book, which offers many lessons in leadership, academic culture formation, and the ways in which new universities can help model new types of higher education that could be templates for future universities. When Noah was working to launch Duke Kunshan University and I was part of the team launching Yale-NUS College, we experienced firsthand the excitement of having the opportunity to design a curriculum and an institution from the ground up. We know that readers will find these stories interesting and informative and look forward to the book being out in about a month!
The value of liberal arts in Asia and educational partnerships has been questioned in recent weeks in many articles, partly triggered by the closure of Yale-NUS College. I was interviewed for an article in Diverse, which explored US-Asia partnerships. In that interview I stressed the key importance of liberal arts as academic communities, which include deep networks of connection and shared values, are crucial for producing academic freedom and excellence in undergraduate education. Many who have weighed in on these ventures have missed this crucial factor and make the error of thinking of a liberal arts institution as a set of courses and FTE faculty lines that can be rearranged and reorganized, or “merged,” without damaging or shattering these relationships that together build an academic culture and community.
The academic community and its deep relationships provide the essential ingredients of excellence in liberal arts colleges around the world. From the faculty side, deep relationships enable the creation of an academic culture that prizes academic freedom and collaboration and places undergraduate education at the center of the enterprise. These deep relationships provide the underpinning of trust that is necessary for faculty to fully partake in the governance and in managing the curriculum. The collaboration between faculty and between faculty and students is the process by which the excellence of the liberal arts college is built, partly through the collaborative process of building a curriculum, and students are able through deep relationships to fully explore their identities and capacities as they fully develop their talents.
As I said in the article, the idea of Yale-NUS being closed solely based on NUS saving money or being motivated by limiting academic freedom is incorrect and oversimplifies the situation. My main quote pointed out that closing Yale-NUS, regardless of motivations, is “definitely a loss” since “any institution is ultimately more than a bunch of courses and faculty lines. It’s a set of shared values. It’s a set of relationships. All of that is being shattered.” In the case of Yale-NUS, I also pointed out the success of Yale-NUS that can be seen through all the major indicators used for gauging institutional effectiveness. The students they were attracting were the best in the world, and students were being accepted to the top PhD programs in the world, garnering Rhodes and Schwarzman Scholarships, and were eagerly sought after by Singapore’s employers.
As all of our institutions move forward and reflect on the value of the liberal arts, I hope that we can stay focused on the main component of value of such institutions. These institutions create value from deep connections between all of the members of the community, faculty, students and staff, and these connections build the shared values, trust and respect that make such institutions distinctive and effective. The excellence of liberal arts colleges comes from a process that liberates students to develop their full capacities as individuals. Such institutions are important as they can build a happier and more meaningful life for students, and (yes) make them more resourceful, creative, communicative and collaborative employees.
Our new article which is entitled “After Yale-NUS Closure, liberal arts in Asia will benefit from Peer Support” has just appeared in Times Higher Education. We provide a strong argument for liberal arts education in the piece, and note that closing Yale-NUS College has squandered the hard work of many top scholars from Yale University, National University of Singapore and the many Yale-NUS faculty who have worked over many years to create the vibrant intellectual cultures of Yale-NUS College and also the USP. The “merging” of these institutions is a huge loss. We are starting a new Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts Colleges (PALAC) to foster greater awareness of the power of liberal arts education. This new PALAC group will bring top liberal arts programs from the US, Canada, China, and other Asia/Pacific countries to foster collaborative research, curriculum development and faculty and student dialogs on the most urgent issues facing our planet. The Alliance also can play a key role in advocating for liberal arts, and articulating a global vision of liberal arts that prepares students to help solve global grand challenges and to make progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
Our group will work together to help bring greater appreciation of the power for liberal arts education to build creativity, communication and cognitive agility in students. These skills are ever more vital as the exponential technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution accelerate change and bring entirely new industries together that can reshape our planet. Training students in liberal arts skills will allow them to contribute and to lead in these developments to help shape this development in ways that foster a greater sense of humanity and sustainability.
The other facet of liberal arts education is that it is effective not only for building skills in thinking and communication but for building deep skills in traditional disciplines from the beginning of an undergraduate’s career. The intense mentoring and interactive classrooms within liberal arts campuses enable students to inquire and grow develop their talents fully. A liberal arts college focuses on undergraduate education as its primary mission, and students benefit from this simpler mission undiluted by the quest for national research rankings, NCAA football titles, and the many other aspects of the larger R1 universities that can dilute their abilities to develop a student to their full capacity. A quote from the THE article illustrates the ways that liberal arts colleges have been effective:
“Acceptance of the liberal arts model among Asian parents and prospective students has been driven by data showing how effective it is at preparing students for careers in business, science and other fields. In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor Ferrall notes that 12 of the 53 Nobel prizewinners between 1999 and 2008 who received their undergraduate education at a US college or university received it at a liberal arts college. This is all the more remarkable given that less than 2 per cent of US undergraduates study at a liberal arts college.“
The US News Rankings come out yesterday, and the Times Higher Education (THE) Rankings were released two weeks ago. These university rankings are not just for amusement but dictate the fortunes of institutions and key strategic planning decisions in many universities. As documented by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a survey of strategic plans from 100 public universities found that about 25% of the plans “explicitly affirm the importance of rising in the national rankings.” University and College rankings, along with selectivity, enrolment, 6-year graduation rates, and support levels from alumni and other funding sources are perhaps the primary information that provides feedback on the success for a particular college or university. These indicators are very sparse and provide only the most rudimentary information to students and their families in deciding which institution to choose.
Considering that the US higher education is an industry that includes over 4300 accredited public and private institutions, enrolling over 18 million students, employing 3.6 million people and garnering over $410 billion in revenues and donations, a more rational and richer quantitative and qualitative set of data is needed. Universities and Colleges often launch internal surveys, self-studies, and conduct extensive reviews of their curriculum and its effectiveness with an accreditation team. This information is indeed rich and qualitative, but aside from basic recommendations and a summary of accreditation results, the information is kept internally. To the outside world, including students and their families, there is very little information provided to select an institution on the basis of its curriculum and its teaching mission, aside from glossy brochures and institutional websites.
It is important to stress that College and University rankings not only measure higher education institutions but shape them too. By dividing institutions into categories, the US News rankings lumps institutions into a few basic groups, and then begins the process of comparison between institutions within groups, bringing institutions into greater similarity through these comparisons. These groups include National Universities, National Liberal Arts, Regional Universities and Colleges and several other categories that are primarily based on the institution size and region. The US News rankings at least separates liberal arts institutions from research universities, which helps identify a group of institutions whose mission is primarily for undergraduate education instead of research productivity. The other rankings, THE, and QS, bring simply rank universities on a mix of their research impact and place some weighting on teaching, primarily based on “reputational surveys.”
In all rankings the data that is used is quite sparse and provides very little detailed consideration of the teaching quality and student outcomes. In the Times Higher Education rankings, for example, the largest factor for assessing teaching is the “reputation survey” (15%), followed by statistics such as the academic staff to student ratio (4.5%), and measures of doctorates awarded and institutional income (8.25%). The remaining 72% of the ranking is based on research, citations, “international outlook,” and “industry income,” which are all mostly irrelevant to the quality of education for undergraduates. The US News rankings employ an algorithm that includes graduation and retention rates (22%), social mobility (5%), graduate rate performance (8%), and undergraduate academic reputation based on a peer assessment survey (20%), which provides a larger weighting for student outcomes than the THE or QS rankings. In response to criticism that the US News rankings simply locked in wealthy schools at the top, US News adjusted their algorithm in 2019 to include their “social mobility measures” that track graduation rates and performance from Pell-eligible students. These adjustments are most welcome, but ranking bodies and universities themselves can do better to publicly measure and rate their success in achieving their institutional missions and advancing undergraduate student learning within their campuses.
A top ranking is a powerful signal to students, who then compete for admissions to the top ranked institutions. This signal then triggers higher selectivity and higher donation rates to the university, which only increases the rankings and competitive pressure for admissions to the institution, creating what might be called a “prestige spiral.” These competitive pressures for universities and colleges is only intensifying, altering the planning of universities and colleges to rise in rankings, leaving many of the lower ranked schools out of the limelight, with reduced enrolments and donations. The US News rankings, which have such a crucial role in higher education, are paradoxically determined by a small group of writers and researchers from an organization named after a now defunct newspaper. These rankings shape the destinies of centuries-old institutions, and strongly influence the decisions of millions of students and their families, as they decide on where to invest what for many families is the largest expense they will ever make.
Since the top-ranked universities are primarily ranked for their research “impact”‘ and funding levels, most families are making their decisions on information that is not primarily shaped by how the institution advances student learning and achievement. To gain in the rankings as a university, an institution can only move forward by advancing its research impact, which favors a competitive race for better laboratories, more publications from faculty, and more research grants. Naturally undergraduate students, curriculum design and other aspects of undergraduate education are left behind. The rankings game also pressures universities into conformity – creating what is sometimes termed as “isomorphism” – as they all try to replicate the department structures, curricula and practices of the top-ranked universities to help them gain in rankings and gather more institutional prestige.
Perhaps one method to improve rankings and remove the conformity pressures of isomorphism is to rank institutions how well they succeed in defining and achieving a unique and differentiated mission that shapes their approach to educating students. This process would also make the mission of an institution less a pro forma exercise, and more of a vital force in shaping academic programs and in providing a transparent vision of the kind of education the institution aspires for its students. John Sexton, the former President of NYU, in his book Standing for Reason, has suggested we consider giving institutions something like a LEED rating on their educational program. As many buildings are LEED Gold for their energy and sustainability, we could rank universities and colleges as Platinum or Gold based on their ability to articulate and accomplish their academic teaching missions. The rating would require institutions to articulate their unique mission and their unique “value proposition” to the world, and then be assessed on the basis of this mission. Sexton also suggests this process would be linked to accreditation so that “each school would have to state its essential philosophy and purpose—its ratio studiorum—and how it aligns its various programs in service of that goal.” By requiring the university and college mission to have assessable and measurable components, it would place the educational program on the same footing as the research program of a university, with clear, transparent and measurable outputs. This could help universities evolve in directions that are true to their own missions, just as they hope to help students grow and learn in their own unique and differentiated ways.
The demise of Yale-NUS College is a great loss for higher education and for educators everywhere. As one of the authors of the Yale-NUS Curriculum Report, which was written at Yale in 2012 to help guide the development of the Yale-NUS common curriculum, and as one of the founding faculty of Yale-NUS, I feel a deep sense of loss in the decision by NUS to merge Yale-NUS College with its other liberal arts program known as the University Scholars Program.
I have written about the founding of Yale-NUS College and the longer history in Singapore and at NUS of innovation and experimentation in undergraduate education throughout the period from 2001 to 2011, before Yale signed their agreement with NUS. Two book chapters in the recent book Envisioning the Asian New Flagship University, tell the tale of how NUS was seeking to adopt liberal arts, experiential education and other cutting-edge undergraduate programs throughout the decade before approaching Yale. While I was at Pomona College in 2007, NUS was discussing with the Claremont Colleges the possibility of a Claremont-NUS College. The concept of a new liberal arts college in Asia was so exciting to me that I left my endowed professorship at Pomona College to help launch the new venture, and lived in Singapore for three years with my family working at Yale-NUS College.
At Yale-NUS College we built one of the most exciting learning communities ever, that blended the best practices of undergraduate education with a far-reaching and ambitious common curriculum. The curriculum included powerful courses in Literature and Humanities, Philosophy and Political Thought, Quantitative Reasoning, Modern Social Thought that inquired deeply with our international students about the human condition. Our brilliant students came from over 40 countries, creating the Yale-NUS College “community of learning” which was a cross-section of global perspectives. Yale-NUS offered an unmatched richness for developing deeper insights to the world our graduates would enter, which at the time was blossoming with possibilities for greater global connection and a more peaceful and enlightened era.
The sciences at Yale-NUS College were also well represented with a dynamic faculty regularly publishing in top journals such as Nature and Science, and who developed three amazing and innovative interdisciplinary courses known as Scientific Inquiry, Foundations of Science and Integrated Science. My role was to help develop and launch the year-long course known as Foundations of Science with my co-Coordinator Brian McAddoo. We built an amazing course which focused on the theme of the Anthropocene, with mini-courses that did “deep dives” in multiple disciplines and a Grand Challenge exercise where students studied and responded to the impacts of the Anthropocene. All of the Common Curriculum courses are described in a booklet on the Common Curriculum we produced at our Yale-NUS Center for Teaching and Learning, and all three of these science courses are described in my recent book, STEM Education for the 21st Century. Our Yale-NUS Center for Teaching and Learning also published a wonderful booklet on Diversity and Inclusion in Curriculum and Classroom after I left, and the combination of the curriculum, the community, and the emergent creativity of Yale-NUS is a wonder and something to celebrate.
Sadly, the achievements of the students and the faculty, who tirelessly pushed the boundaries of what could be possible in undergraduate education, was not supported by NUS and the Singaporean government after just 10 years since the agreement between Yale and NUS was signed. With this closure, Singapore and the world loses a great chapter in higher education and a brilliant achievement in creating a vibrant intercultural community from scratch. The reasons for this decision are not fully known, but was one made by NUS and Singapore. There were a few controversies about academic freedom with Yale-NUS College and in Singapore, which we have documented in our new book Neo-Nationalism and Universities, which is being released by JHU Press on September 7.
Yale insisted on academic freedom as a condition of its involvement. Whether this closure by NUS was one made for financial or curricular reasons, or with an eye toward increasing control over Yale-NUS is unknown. Yale-NUS College had a much more liberal approach to LBGTQ issues and a very free-spirited academic culture that was largely independent from NUS, and now faces the prospect of being merged into NUS. We all mourn the loss of this wonderful institution and will hope that what emerges as the NUS New College will the brilliance, freedom, and the creativity of Yale-NUS College.
Our new book, Neo-Nationalism and Universities – Populists, Autocrats and the Future of Higher Education, is being published by JHU Press. John Douglass is the lead author, and I have contributed a chapter that is co-authored with him on Higher Education in Singapore and Hong Kong. My chapter is entitled “Balancing Nationalism and Globalism – Higher Education in Singapore and Hong Kong.” The book launch event will feature John Douglass providing a review of the book which should be very interesting. I hope you can join! The event is September 14 from 10-11AM PDT and is online via zoom. The event is available at the link: https://cshe.berkeley.edu/meet-author-neo-nationalism-and-universities
From the work of Spring 2021, my students and I have produced some really amazing images. This has reduced some of my worries about the remote instruction, and thankfully our SUA Nieves Observatory, which can be operated from anywhere in the planet, came through. You can see more of these images on our Nieves Observatory website.
With my students based in Vietnam, India, Nepal, Japan, and New Jersey, I conducted “lab” sessions in my house where a group of students would appear on Zoom and we would virtually sit around the telescope while they took images. This continued throughout the Spring 2021 semester, and as the students became more capable I found myself able to step away and could watch them as they worked in groups to take images. It was interesting to see how their capabilites grew and the social environment that observing had created for them. Even in the virtual space, the process of peering into the vast blackness of space with the telescope was exciting and brought out a new dimension for the class.
To help them gain more experience, I also trained batches of students in a more advanced image processing program known as PixInsight. This program can do a more sophisticated analysis of the images, correcting for backgrounds, adding multiple exposures and enabling adjustment of the colors. Several of the students became experts and produced some marvelous and beautiful images which are below, with the names of our wonderful SUA students. All of these images were taken with our SUA Nieves Observatory, except for those that are labelled “LCRO” which were taken by the students using a remotely operated telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.