Dean Chun’s opening address

Marvin Chun

August 26, 2017

Good morning. President Salovey, Provost Polak, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Gendler, Graduate School Dean Cooley, Secretary Goff-Crews and the officers of the university, the heads and deans of the residential colleges, and the deans and members of the Yale College Dean’s Office, all join me in welcoming you to Yale. We have been waiting a long time to meet you, and we are glad that you are finally here. I want to extend my welcome to the family members and friends who are here today. It is thanks to your support and guidance that Yale has the privilege of hosting these impressive young adults. 

Class of 2021, across the entire 316 year history of Yale College, you are absolutely the greatest in number. You are arriving at Yale at one of its most exciting moments: two new colleges are opening their gates for the first time, one is being rededicated, and magnificent new spaces to support undergraduate life have recently opened. The campus is alive with activity, and it is waiting for you to explore it.

I’ve been a teacher and researcher of psychology and neuroscience at Yale for seventeen years, and a college head for nine of those years. But this is my first year as the dean of Yale College, so like you, I’m gaining new opportunities and responsibilities. Like you, I’m eager to build on what I know and enjoy, while exploring novel ideas and pursuits. 

President Salovey has set Yale to be the research university most committed to teaching and learning. This means that my job as dean is to ensure that you have the best possible experiences both inside and outside of the classroom at Yale. To help you get started, I would like to share with you some wisdom that I have gained from your predecessors. 

In college, you will discover, if you haven’t already, that your biggest challenge is that there too many things to try, and too little time to do everything. You will soon be getting a lot of advice about time management and how to make choices. To start, my first suggestion is to slow down. Take things one at a time. Let me ask you a question: When you study, how many of you can concentrate on your work for hours without checking your phone, or your social media accounts, or your e-mail? Don’t be shy: raise your hand. If you are like most people, you multitask. You might juggle lots of things at once because you think that you have to because you’re busy, or because you think it makes you more efficient. It’s true that multitasking is possible – - but research shows that it comes at a severe cost. Let me demonstrate. If you look at your program, you will find an insert inside it. Take it out, and find the line called Demo One, under the picture. Look at the row of numbers. Half of them are black, and half are outlined white. Starting from the left, look at each number in the line, and check whether the number is black or white. If the number is black, add 7 to the number and whisper out the answer, then move on to the next number. If the number is white, subtract 7 to the number and whisper out the answer, then move on to the next number. Go as fast as you can, and when you’re done with the row, snap your fingers so I can hear when you’re done. Try to do this faster than your guests in the balcony. Again, just do the line in Demo One. Ready, go.

Now go to Demo Two. You’re going to do the same thing. If the number is black, add 7, if the number is white, subtract 7. Go as fast as you can, and snap at the end. Ready, go. The second demo was harder, right? The second version is a simulation of multitasking and task switching, compared to doing the same problems, but focused on a single task at a time. If we measured your performance properly using a timer, we would have reliably found that people are about 30 percent slower, and about 30 percent less accurate in the second version than in the first version. When we scan your brain while multitasking, we find that the brain has to physically work harder. Switching back and forth between tasks is like putting on a heavy backpack while running. So my simple, practical suggestion for maximizing your study time is to turn off your phone and social media alerts when you study. Reward yourself by promising to check only about once an hour as a break. Drop the burdensome load of multitasking and focus on the task in front of you. Time management is a key to success at a busy place like Yale. 

I have a second suggestion, and let me demonstrate again using the insert in your program. Look at the image at the top. Name out loud what you see. If you first saw a duck, raise your hand. If you first saw a rabbit, raise your hand. Can you see it both ways? This simple demonstration shows a fundamental principle of psychology: we all experience the world differently. Our perceptual interpretations, our memories, and our thoughts, are all constructs of the mind, and they differ across people even when considering the same object or event. Most situations in life have multiple, valid interpretations. In order to best confront such ambiguity, we must learn to see other perspectives. And for that, we must have an open mind and appreciate the different interpretations around us. Yale values these differences because they are everywhere in the world. In order to become good citizens and leaders of this world, you need to become comfortable with difference, not just to accept it or tolerate it but to insist on it, whether it’s political, cultural, ethnic, or skill-based. Yale needs to be a place where you feel comfortable to listen and to speak up, both inside and outside of the classroom. A goal of the fabulous liberal arts education that awaits you is not just to give you knowledge, but the ability to analyze new problems from multiple angles. You need to see both the duck and the rabbit. 

Finally, look at demo 3 at the bottom of the page. These letters form a code, what do they signify? If you think you guessed, you can raise your hand, although I won’t call on you. Here’s the answer. The letters are my first-year grades in college. My first year GPA was around 2.9 out of 4.0. As a budding Psychology major, I took two terms of Introduction to Psychology, which is what I teach at Yale. My first term grade in Intro Psych was a B, while, my second term grade was a C. At Yale, I am grateful to have an award for teaching excellence in the social sciences, a course in which I earned a grade of D. 

By the way, I showed President Salovey these grades after I was appointed dean. He warmly assured me that I can keep my job. But we both agreed that I should clarify that I’m not advocating that you get such grades here at Yale. 

The immediate question is how did I go from grades like these to getting full fellowship offers for Ph.D. training at MIT and Stanford, postdoctoral training at Harvard, and a professorship with tenure at Yale, where I became an award-winning teacher and researcher, a college head, and now dean?

One quick answer is that I am resilient, I did not give up, and I worked hard. I’m not showing you my subsequent grades because they’re mostly just A’s. My overall GPA was still low, but my point is that you can’t summarize your college experience with a number. I hope that you will start to define your time at Yale differently than you may have in the past, now in a richer, more holistic way. Will you find courses and activities about which you feel passionate? In which you are creative and effective? From which you contribute meaningfully to others around you? 

Now here’s the biggest reason that I was able to recover from these first year grades. I was blessed with outstanding mentors. I found generous friends with whom I exchanged notes and formed a study group. I looked up to an impressive graduate student teaching fellow, who is now one of my closest friends. And, most important, an inspiring faculty member took me under his wing after seeing something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. Professor Chung encouraged my studies and gave me research opportunities, and he successfully supported me for fellowships and for graduate school. Beyond school, I have had terrific mentors throughout my career – most important is my wife of 21 years, Yale Professor Woo-kyoung Ahn, without whom I would definitely not be standing here today. Even moving forward in my role as dean, I will be relying on an exceptional cohort of mentors, many sitting right behind me.

As you navigate your way around Yale, my final suggestion to you is to find your mentors. They are everywhere. Yale has already designated several faculty members eager to help you: your college head, your college dean, your college advisor. When you take classes, your professors want to get to know you, but you need to take the first step of lingering after class, going to office hours, or asking good questions over e-mail. If you’re active in a cultural center, the dean and director could be your mentor. If you’re playing a sport for Yale, you have coaches. Whether you’re religious or not, our chaplains are eager to guide you. If you’re working – as we hope you will during your extracurricular time and summers – your supervisor may teach you as much as you would learn in a class. In addition, you all have a first year counselor eager to help your transition; don’t underestimate the value of your FroCo with Yale-specific experience and training. Helpful peer liaisons will also be joining your Yale student mentorship team.

An important benefit of having a good mentor is that it makes you a good teacher and example to others. Mentoring others is a form of service that pays forward. Sharing your experience and talents is how you will make leading contributions to society, in every career path. Not just friends around your age, but you can even teach those more experienced than you. Some of my best mentors have been my students. 

Remember this day as an opportunity to appreciate all the mentoring you received so far, not just from your instructors, but from the parents and family, teachers, coaches, supervisors, and friends who have been part of your journey, some of them here with you today. As you take your first steps in this new place, I hope you will join me in applauding them as they applaud you.

Congratulations again, and welcome to Yale.