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Not much closure on Yale-NUS closure

Okay, now that Parliament has heard about the Yale-NUS closure/merger, I suppose that would be the end of the noise. I can just hear NUS President Prof Tan Eng Chye telling parents of the Yale-NUS students when he meets them that they should refer to Mr Chan Chun Sing’s speech, just as the minister keeps telling the MPs to refer to Prof Tan’s commentary in ST.

So what did Mr Chan say? First, that NUS wants to go it alone. It thinks it’s time, especially since one college for humanities and sciences is up and running, and another merging engineering and design is on its way. So why not the University Scholars Programme and Yale-NUS? In fact, why so much fuss about this venture when nary a peep has been heard about the other mergers? 

Second, there’s the “national’’ element. NUS is good enough to offer its own brand of education – and there’s no need to ape other models. As for the money angle, it’s one motive but not the main one, he said. Then comes declarations that everything was done according to the book with both NUS and Yale pretty happy to make the announcement jointly. In fact, the Aug 27 announcement was a masterly exercise in timing. Statements on the closure emanated from Singapore and New Haven at the same time. 

I don’t have a stake in the fate of Yale-NUS (although it is nice to regard it as an alternative employer of academics and practitioners). It is/was an autonomous college in an autonomous university with its own governing board which can decide on curriculum content and whom to hire or fire. It looked independent of establishment control, something that most people consider necessary for the development of a liberal arts college. 

The merged entity will now come under the NUS fold with an international panel of advisors, whom I presume would be a different lot from the panel that NUS already has. 

Yale-NUS College students have always surprised me with their interest groups which aren’t the usual run of social causes. I think only Yale-NUS would even think of considering Alfian Saat to talk to students, much less conduct a module. (And look what happened!) I look at The Octant and I can’t see any NUS student publication being allowed to report negative news about itself. 

They intrude into the public eye, which can be disconcerting for those used to the Singapore prototype of the hardworking grades-obsessed student, uninterested  in current affairs and politically apathetic. Some people might see the Yale-NUS products as a breath of fresh air in strait-laced Singapore, while others might scent danger in the form of liberal values that aren’t suited for local circumstances. 

I have watched its campus grow from bare ground to its current state with beautiful landscaping and plenty of privacy and facilities afforded to students and faculty. I wouldn’t be surprised if other students are envious of this oasis. I recall how previous USP students had griped to me about their non-exclusive status when other residential colleges popped up as their neighbours, like Tembusu and College of Alice and Peter Tan. (There is a yet unnamed Residential College 4 up and running, by the way.) Then along came the jewel in the crown, Yale-NUS.

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Now that all have been told that subsidies for Yale-NUS students amount to twice that given to the plain vanilla NUS student, I can see more heads nodding in agreement about such heavy investment in so few people. There will be even more rigorous nodding at the information that  40 per cent of the intake comprise foreigners, compared to 10 per cent for NUS. What about ratio for the New College? Mr Chan said he will wait to see the final plans. 

The thing is, as Mr Chan also admitted, the kind of numbers and investment have always been made clear, right from the beginning. But now the song has changed. The stress is on “inclusive’’, “affordable’’ and “accessible’’. 

So “inclusive’’ is about getting more students to experience residential living with a Yale-NUS type of studying in small groups. That could have been fixed by raising enrolment, unless it was never envisaged as growing beyond the 1,000 students as it does now with 250 per intake for a four-year degree. 

Foreign and local ratios could be changed so it is accessible to more Singapore students, although the question of what would be the right balance to achieve a “global’’ outlook would have to be answered. Did the Yale-NUS governing board say no to proposed changes? Were they even proposed?

As for affordability, the fact is that Yale-NUS operates on a needs-blind basis, where every student who is admitted gets financial help if he or she can’t afford school fees. Then there was the point made about how students will have 50 disciplines to choose from in the merged entity, compared to 14 now. I wonder how the small group format would work with such an array of choices, or whether the students will be farmed out to the other faculties as well. 

The Yale-NUS governing board was mentioned a few times, but it was clear that it was a fait accompli for the board as the matter was between the two universities to decide. In fact, Mr Chan said that the closure/merger was kept under wraps before of “sensitive” matters concerning  finance and strategy. This is disappointing. I would think that every change we make or any new policy would contain such “sensitive’’ information. Who are we protecting the information from? Rival universities? Or is the point to make a quick clean break with no ifs and buts from any interested party? 

I also think that not having Yale-NUS College chief Tan Tai Yong in the loop is a terribly disrespectful move. The pity is that Prof Tan seems to have clammed up since his earlier statements to The Octant about being “gobsmacked” and “flabbergasted” when told of the decision. I feel for him.

What is strange is that in March this year, both co-founders of Yale-NUS, Tan Chorh Chuan and Richard Levin were waxing lyrical in an ST op-ed about how successful the college was in nurturing “creative, intellectually agile and engaged graduates who are well prepared for career success, societal contribution and global leadership’’. 

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In case people are confused about what a liberal arts programme means and believe it is not “inter-disciplinary’’, here’s what the two men said about their baby. A liberal arts education isn’t just arty-farty – it encompasses the humanities, social and natural sciences. 

“First, students gain a strong understanding of multiple disciplinary perspectives and approaches and how they can be employed to interpret and analyse nature, society and the individual.Only after broad multidisciplinary exposure do students choose a specialisation.

“Second, there is a focus on the development of critical thinking skills that can be applied across different knowledge domains. This is crucial in a world where knowledge evolves rapidly and the problems facing society are complex. 

“ It enables liberal arts graduates to zoom out to see the broader picture and the connections among key issues, and to zoom in to rigorously analyse specific areas and forge creative syntheses.

The two men even said that the establishment of the College of Humanities and Sciences was no cause for concern. It wouldn’t dilute the distinctiveness of Yale-NUS, they said. Their last line expressed confidence that both colleges would thrive. 

That was in March. Four months later, the closure/merger discussions started.

I suppose there is never a good time to close down an institution. Doing so a little earlier before the term started would mean the current batch of first-year students could have changed their minds about enrolling. So Mr Chan said that the announcement was made at the earliest date possible so that the students would still finish school with a degree by the time the next “sign post’’ arrives, which is 2025. I was under the impression that the sign post was actually 2030, when Yale-NUS was supposed to have built up its endowment to its target of about $1 billion, with government matching and investment returns.

The MPs were a let-down. The only new information they got out of Mr Chan was how the G gave $48 million in operating expenses last year. So what was the total investment or is it still considered sensitive information? Mr Chan said money isn’t the main factor – and the Yale side said the same as well. Whose job is it to raise funds anyway? Yale-NUS? Or the Yale side in the US which has actually said it wouldn’t be a problem? Mr Chan said Yale-NUS couldn’t do it “through no fault of their own’’.

He made it clear too that questions about academic freedom had no part to play in the decision and even took a swipe at people for demeaning NUS academics when they laud Yale-NUS. Thank you but no thanks. Assertions from politicians are just hot air. The only way to ascertain this is to see what difference in latitude the academics in NUS and Yale-NUS have in terms of what they can say, do, teach and research. And that’s not been done.

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I almost wished he said money was the big deal. We can understand money. We are frugal people and want the best bang for our buck. We won’t even think about whether other liberal arts colleges elsewhere have the same degree of funding or why so much is needed anyway to main it.

Instead, we are given statements like taking “the best of east and west’’ without any clue what these elements are in the Yale-NUS and USP curricula. At least, we will have some idea of what the New College would look like. Please do not say those points have not been nailed down or are still being figured out. Because if so, then the decision to close/merge would have been premature.

*I declare my interest as an adjunct staff member of NUS Communications and New Media Department and Tembusu College

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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