I am proud of our young people.
I am proud that they cared enough to attend a town hall meeting to give their point of view. I am proud of Monica Baey, who took it upon herself to fly back from Taiwan to be at the meeting even though it would be an uncomfortable exercise for her. I am even proud of Nicholas Lim, for speaking up about what he did and putting himself under the spotlight.
I can’t say the same for my employer, National University of Singapore, for, first, its inept handling of Monica’s complaint, and second, its inept handling of the aftermath.
I have often told undergraduates that they are an apathetic lot, who prefer to merely put their names on online petitions than taking the time and energy to speak up for a cause. But over the past week, they have turned their eyes away from the computer screen, even though examinations are due next week, and decided to tackle the university authorities on fundamental issues regarding safety of the premises, support for victims and the disciplinary framework it has used over the years.
I wasn’t at the town hall yesterday and am basing my opinions on what has been reported and what undergraduates have told me.
The town hall was universally panned as too short (time), too small (space) and extremely uninformative (content). I gather there was much laughing and groaning among the audience who were reacting to comments made by the panel, with many shouted utterances. The panel didn’t seem ready to give information, just merely to hear out grievances and listen to suggestions and issue the appropriate apology at the appropriate time.
What wasn’t appreciated by the audience was how the panel appeared to be pushing the issue to the newly set-up review committee. Yet no one on the committee was present. Students were, however, assured that their comments would be referred to the committee and to write an email if they had more to say. Of course, that didn’t go down well either (cue groans). A call to extend the town hall for a half hour was rejected.
The meeting was rather more colourful than what I have described above (and got rude at times – which I don’t condone), but I should leave this to eye-witnesses to detail.
What’s more important is whether the university and the students cleared the bad air between them and came to some kind of understanding on how to move forward. At times, it seemed that both sides were talking at cross-purposes – the panel asking for suggestions on how to improve disciplinary methods and the students replying that the onus was on the authority to lay them out – not for students to do so.
Perhaps, the panel thought it would be inappropriate to jump the gun before the review committee got down to work. Even so, I think there was scope for the panel to talk about past disciplinary cases, rationale for the action taken and whether its “two strikes and you’re out” policy was ever carried out.
News reports said there were 26 cases of sexual offences in the past three years, 17 of which were cases of voyeurism, mainly filming or taking photographs.
TODAY, for example, reported that even though some were committed by repeat offenders, none of the cases resulted in the culprits being expelled from NUS. In most cases, the offenders were suspended for one to two semesters, issued an official reprimand, made to attend mandatory counselling, required to submit a statement of reflection or apology, and fined up to S$1,000. Are these the “manifestly inadequate’’ penalties that Education Minister Ong Ye Kung talked about? What model did NUS refer to when it set up the framework? Has it stayed the same for too long a time?
Acknowledging inadequacies in the framework is the first step towards healing.
And there are some things that don’t need a review committee to answer for, such as the state of campus security. The panel said it would be beefed up but didn’t say what aspects. Even if it was not ready with details, current manpower numbers, number of CCTVs and number of patrols are surely not confidential information that can’t be disseminated for students to mull over?
There was one student who made a point about university resources that I think deserves attention. The university is full of smart people, experts in all sorts of areas, she noted. Its resources are formidable, yet it doesn’t seem able to tap on this pool to deal with issues. I agree. I am sure we have experts on sexual offences, penalty regimes, behavioral change, crisis communications and even on environmental safety!
It seems to me that the university administration is carrying a load that can be shared by its expert faculty, who are probably more in touch with the sentiments of students. It might be a good idea if the review committee headed by Madam Kay Kuok, a member of the NUS Board of Trustees, to add faculty members to help in the overhaul.
One lesson from the town hall that I can discern: don’t call one unless you have something more to say than sorry and some scripted remarks. You’re just generating more heat than light. And those quiet students who attend lectures can get riled up too. They can get emotional, passionate and, yes, maybe even unreasonable.
But I am glad. It means they care about something.