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There are not many business school deans that can claim to have the international profile of the National University of Singapore’s Bernard Yeung. At 59 years old he has held three nationalities and worked and studied in at least four different countries, not to mention a childhood growing up in Hong Kong.
Now a US citizen, he spent 33 years in North America, studying at the University of Western Ontario and Chicago, before teaching at NYU Stern, Alberta and Michigan. He has also taught extensively in China.
It was when he was in China, leading the faculty team that developed the Shanghai campus for NYU, that he realised the imperative to return to Asia. “The process gave me the impression that the Asian renaissance was for real. I felt I needed to be here.”
With that sense of urgency came the recognition that he needed to join an Asian university where there was already strong financial management and governance systems in place, he says. “I feel I have people [at NUS] who are eager to make changes,” says Prof Yeung, who joined NUS in June 2008. “We need to change in a hurry.”
Over the past four and a half years 28 faculty have left the business school, but the dean has been aggressive in hiring, employing 50 additional professors and teaching staff. The faculty count now stands at around 150, about two-thirds of whom are international – about the same size as his alma mater Chicago Booth
“We are not shy of looking for top guns,” says the dean. Indeed, he has proven himself particularly adept at recruiting those professors, like himself, who are returning to Asia from the US and Europe. In particular he has been effective in hiring faculty who may have been considering Indian business schools. “Talent wants to come back to Asia but in the change you want to go to a place where you know you can remain (research) productive.”
His big selling point for the school is his plan to build a faculty group with strong academic and teaching credentials and he has introduced an American-style tenure system as part of his plan to achieve this. “You walk into a place like Chicago and you can feel the intellectual intensity. It is beginning to feel like that here,” he asserts.
His policy is to lead from the front and unlike many top business school deans, is himself a top publisher in some of the industry’s A-rated journals across a range of subjects including finance, economics and policy. “The reason I am here is that I really want to make a difference.
“What NUS has done in the past few years is take advantage of a solid foundation and built on that,” he continues. Most recently he has made NUS one of the central Asian players in the Yale global alliance of business schools, the Global Network for Advanced Management, which brings together 22 business schools from developed and developing countries to conduct joint research, including case-study writing, and teaching.
For all his longing to build a business school that can compete with the best in the US, Asian business schools need to do it differently, he believes. “When I was in the US I could look at what had happened in the past 150 years, but in this part of the world economic development is new. What kind of challenges do Chinese companies face? This is not in the text books.”
So he has introduced professorial incentives for those who create teaching materials as well as those who complete academic research. “We pay bonuses for people to produce relevant teaching material.” As well as writing cases, faculty develop simulations. And, he adds, “We use news stories to set exam questions.” The school also has one of the few financial trading rooms that actually deal in real, not notional, funds.
His enthusiasm is catching. “Coming here you feel that what you do really matters. You have a chance to inspire knowledge,” he persuades. “That’s the joy of being in this part of the world. I feel like a kid in a candy store.”