Professor Robbie Goh began officially as the new Provost at SUSS on 1 October 2021, succeeding Professor Tsui Kai Chong. He is a passionate educator who has won multiple teaching awards and has been recognised for his scholarship and service to academia and society.
Prior to joining SUSS, Professor Goh was the National University of Singapore (NUS) Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and a Professor of Literature in the University’s Department of English Language and Literature. He obtained his B.A. Honours (1st Class, direct honours, 1988) and M.A. (1989) from NUS, and his Ph.D from the University of Chicago (1993).
The SUCCESS Editorial Team talked to Professor Goh to get his views, outlook and more on various issues to get to know him better.
SUCCESS Editorial Team: As you became Provost of SUSS just over six months ago, we would like to get to know you, your views on university education and your aspirations for SUSS. Perhaps we could start with you sharing briefly about your university days and your field of study.
Professor Goh: I did my first two degrees at NUS, and my Ph.D at the University of Chicago. For my first degree, I was in what was called the ‘Direct Honours’ Programme at NUS, which was basically an accelerated and specialised course of study – I did courses in Literature, Linguistics and Philosophy in my first year, then focussed only on Literature, and earned a First Class honours degree in three years instead of the usual four. At Chicago, after the coursework and foreign language requirements (for which I did French and German), and the Qualifying Exams, I wrote my dissertation on S. T. Coleridge and how his writings were influenced in some ways by David Hume, Adam Smith and other writers on commercial society.
Prior to SUSS, you had been with NUS where you had started your career and as an academic. Do tell us a little bit about your time there.
I had a very long and enjoyable career in NUS – 33 years in total, from the time I was hired as a Senior Tutor (right after graduating with my B.A. Honours) to the point I left in September 2021. NUS gave me a scholarship to do my Ph.D, and nurtured me as a teacher and a scholar, so I will always be grateful to my alma mater. I really enjoyed teaching, and along the way, I was able to win seven teaching awards (five FASS teaching awards, and two NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Awards). I also won a couple of awards for good performance in research. Quite early on, I was also asked to do administrative work, and served, among other things, as Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, Deputy Director of the Asia Research Institute, and Vice-Dean and then Dean of the FASS. Unfortunately, the higher-level administrative responsibilities take up a lot of time from teaching and research (although I was able to continue doing some of both, with some effort), but along the way, I did gain a lot of managerial experience and dealt with some very interesting experiences and challenges.
What attracted you to SUSS?
I have to be honest and say that initially I was not interested in leaving NUS, where I was very happy and where a lot of my friends were – I always thought I would work at NUS until retirement. However, after I was approached for the Provost’s job, I did some research on SUSS, and a lot of its values, and its overall mission, really resonated with me. I had long been involved in volunteer work, in youth work, social ministries and overseas orphanages through my church, and on the board of the Metropolitan YMCA where I served for some 10 years or so. It was an easy match between my personal values and those of SUSS.
The idea of a university devoted to doing social good is really a unique feature: while all universities aim to do good to society in various ways, in SUSS it is a whole-of-university mission, from its educational mission in upskilling and qualifying adult learners, to its applied social sciences research mission, to its social services disciplines (like Early Childhood Education, Social Work, and Gerontology), to its close partnership with social service agencies. I also thought that as Provost, I would have a significant say in how best to fulfil this mission, and relished the challenge of doing so.
How have your past roles and experiences prepared you for your current role?
I do think that my experiences in NUS, particularly as Dean of the very large and complex FASS, were good training for this role. Both Dean of FASS and Provost of SUSS are talent management roles, very similar in the sense of attracting, retaining, nurturing and developing academic talent. At NUS, I was able to put in place a number of schemes to recognise and encourage academic talent, which has been helpful in my role in SUSS. Also, because I am a teacher and researcher at heart, and have gone through all the academic ranks and career stages, I think this allows me to empathise and engage better with my colleagues. I have literally decades of experience as an educator and in developing new programmes, which I can bring to bear in SUSS.
What would you like to achieve in the next five years as Provost? What do you see as being your greatest challenges to achieving these goals and how will you address these challenges?
SUSS has done well in its short history, and has so much potential to do even better. I see my job as enhancing SUSS’s performance and inculcating a spirit of excellence in all that we do, from teaching, to research, to serving society. I expect that the two biggest challenges might be changing mindsets (for a few people who have gotten used to doing things in a certain way – although there may not be too many of such), as well as resourcing some of the very worthy and timely initiatives we have planned.
This year, SUSS turns 17, which is relatively young. What are the challenges and advantages of being a young university?
It’s even younger when you consider that it has only been an autonomous university since 2017. The biggest challenge is that it doesn’t yet have a grand and rich history like NUS, or much older universities like Oxford and Cambridge. We have not yet developed a strong identity and brand.
Conversely, the biggest advantage is also that we are young and nimble enough to change, to respond quickly to rapidly changing conditions in society and the workplace, and to develop good and sustainable ways to train our students for the new order they will be facing.
In your opinion, what is the most effective way to help students reach their potential, and best prepare them to be successful in their lives and careers?
We need to equip them with not just the knowledge in their chosen major, but also in the broader suite of skills such as communicative, digital, critical, hands-on and interdisciplinary, that will allow them to be adaptive and flexible in response to changes. SUSS has a very strong culture of lifelong learning, and we train students to be self-directed learners and to be able to upskill “on the fly” while coping with work, personal life, etc. And if they catch from their teachers a passion for what they do, then that passion will ultimately drive them to a fulfilled and successful life.
Covid-19 has forced universities to move a significant amount of their teaching online. Do you believe that the digital university is the future of higher education, or is the campus still central to university experience?
We are ultimately social creatures, and there will always be a need for the campus as a social space, even as we have learnt to do many things online. The future is hybrid – the question is how to create a hybrid educational experience that is meaningful and impactful for our students.
What are the lessons learnt from our response to the Covid-19 pandemic that will best serve SUSS moving forward?
Be ready for challenges and change! Nobody could have imagined the impact that Covid-19 had on our society and lives, but we adapted quickly and successfully. The spirit of our Covid-19 response – resilience, adaptability and inventiveness, empathy, community-mindedness, civic responsibility – is the ethos that we need to have as a university looking ahead, and that we need to instil in our students.
With SUSS’s vision to be a leading university for social good, what have you found to be the most effective way to impart this philosophy to impact humanity positively to our students?
There are probably many particular and concrete ways to do this, including compulsory community engagement and experiential learning classes, and involving students in all our research, field projects and other activities where SUSS practises doing social good. But perhaps the most important is really having a spirit and institutional culture that is passionate about doing good – that passion cannot be faked, and I think our students would pick it up in the course of their studies. We need to keep on recruiting passionate educators who embody the spirit of service to community.
SUSS partners play a key role in helping the University and its stakeholders, from students to alumni, staff to collaborators, make our mark for the greater good. Any final message for these friends of ours?
I actually don’t think there is such a thing as ‘SUSS’ apart from its stakeholders! We are the sum total of our relationships with our students, alumni, faculty and staff, employers, collaborators, donors, and others. SUSS, as a service- and community-oriented university, is particularly focussed on strengthening and growing these vital relationships. I see SUSS as a hub or catalyst of social good, creating value and helping to set directions for and with our stakeholders.
If you share those values, and want to make a difference in society and build community, I invite you to join us!
Professor Goh in Sydney, Australia in 2017.