Subra Suresh: why I swapped Carnegie Mellon for Singapore

No better place than city state for higher education's new era, says Nanyang Technological University president

February 22, 2018
Subra Suresh

If Subra Suresh had been offered the job of leading Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University just a few years ago, he “would not have taken it”, he admits.

The scientist and engineer has more than 40 years’ experience working in US research and academia, with a CV that boasts leadership roles at Brown University, the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and includes Barack Obama as a referee.

Professor Suresh could have had – as he has had before – his pick of the world’s elite institutions to work in, which is why it will have surprised some that he chose to leave his role as president of Carnegie Mellon University for NTU at the end of last year.

But with the rapid growth in Asian economies causing global higher education’s centre of gravity to shift eastwards, Professor Suresh insisted that his move was “not as unusual” as some might think.

“There’s no better place in Asia [for connecting] with all of Asia than Singapore,” he told Times Higher Education. “In the past 20 years, a number of people have relocated here – you have nearly half the American Fortune 500 companies with a major presence here.

“Good science anywhere is good for science everywhere; I feel that, for people like me or most people in academia, it’s not location that matters, but what you do.”

Professor Suresh was born in Mumbai and arrived in the US “with a one-way ticket bought with borrowed funds and $40 in my pocket”. In a keynote speech at THE’s Asia Universities Summit, he emphasised the need for open borders if higher education was to flourish and sounded a warning about the increased visa restrictions being introduced in the US by the Trump administration, noting that “empires rise and fall throughout history”.

Regardless, NTU brings new and “exciting” prospects, Professor Suresh told THE. It might be placed only 52nd in the most recent THE World University Rankings, compared with Carnegie Mellon’s 24th position, but its research volume has increased 10-fold in as many years and the institution is ambitious to go even further.

NTU “has much more agility and nimbleness than many longer established institutions around the world”, said Professor Suresh, who explained that his role was to place the university among the world’s elite for the long term.

“NTU has come a very long way in a very short period of time by anybody’s metric,” he said. “I see this as more of an opportunity – how do you stabilise this rapid growth, and how do you make it part and parcel of the day-to-day operation of the university? It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon for the really long haul; and I think that’s really exciting.”

The university has a new medical school run jointly with Imperial College London, offering revolutionary technology that, Professor Suresh suggested, even US institutions could not compete with.

Meanwhile, preparing students and society for the fourth industrial revolution – the reshaping of the world of work by automation and artificial intelligence – is something that “NTU can do better than almost any other university in the world”, he argued.

Just last month, NTU announced its “smart campus initiative” with the Singapore government to become a test bed for the nation’s transport development. A number of large global corporations including Rolls-Royce, BMW and, most recently, Volvo are also partnering with NTU’s engineering department to fund research into greener technological initiatives.

“They can [already] charge an electric bus at a bus stop in 20 seconds,” Professor Suresh gave as an example. “In all this, we are working with the government to [advise on] policies, to decide what the laws might be around autonomous and electric vehicles.”

NTU’s involvement in public policy affords Professor Suresh a significant degree of influence in the government – another potential factor in his decision to move across the world. He is a keen environmentalist – “Singapore…has a sustained long-term commitment to its ecosystem, so that’s part of the reason [for moving]” – and his aim is to help build “the smartest university in the world”.

“Very soon, we hope to have all 59 buildings on the campus ‘Green Mark’ certified,” he said. “It should be the most eco-friendly campus on the planet. So it’s not just talk, it’s not just research; it’s walking the talk.”

“I first visited NTU in 1991,” he concluded. “What has changed since? The hunger, the aspiration, the ability to attract talent, the desire to play on a global scale…I feel very privileged to lead this world-class university at this point.”

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