Soul To The Highest Bidder
column Adam Goh
When President Pericles Lewis first announced that our residential colleges (RC) would be renamed from RC1, RC2 and RC3 to Saga, Elm and Cendana respectively, many of us felt a sense of loss. We had grown attached to our former names—including freshmen, who had barely spent a month here—and even today, some still refer to our RCs as RC1, 2 and 3. With the lack of student engagement from the leadership, most of us did not understand the meanings behind the individual trees, and could not identify with our respective names. History seems set to repeat itself as the leadership considers renaming the RCs once again, this time after donors to the college.
Just as Singapore naval vessels are named after admirable traits that the crew should possess, the names of our residential colleges should represent what our community values. How can we do so if the leadership unilaterally chooses names for our residential colleges? We found it hard to relate to trees; how well will we be able relate to donors whom most of us have barely heard of?
Residential colleges are a defining feature of the Yale-NUS College experience, and building our individual RC identities is an important part of it. As we continue to forge our RC identities, we must choose permanent names that build upon, rather than destroy, what we currently have. Suppose we choose to name our RCs after donors: how many of us will be able to confidently explain the significance behind those names, and with true conviction? Our RC names should represent our community—and that certainly cannot be reduced to dollars and cents. Donors may help build the physical infrastructure, but we students are the ones who bring life to the college. Our contributions to the college, both tangible and intangible, are by no means insignificant. Should we not have a say in this? We have the opportunity to give our RCs names that hold special meaning to the community, yet we are contemplating throwing that opportunity away in favor of giving—no, selling—naming rights to people or organizations we are unable to identify with.
Granted, naming residences after donors as a form of recognition for their contributions is an established practice in institutions around the world (two examples being Berkeley College in Yale University and our neighbor, College of Alice & Peter Tan). But why are we restricting our definition of contributions? As a start-up college, we need not follow in the footsteps of other established colleges in recognizing only tangible contributions. Many in our community have made significant intangible contributions to our college: the college leadership, faculty, staff, and even students. It is the community here, not donors, that has shaped Yale-NUS to what it is today, and will continue to shape what it will be in the future. What better way to honor the pioneering spirit of our inaugural college body than to name our RCs after members of our community? This is but one of the ways to make our names relatable not only to us, but to future generations of Yale-NUS students. I am confident we can come up with other ideas as well.
I am not against the recognition of donors, whose contributions to the college cannot be discounted. There are ample opportunities to show our appreciation to them. Scholarships, grants, and fellowships are named after their benefactors, and it is hard to imagine that we cannot find other naming opportunities on our new campus, such as sports halls, auditoriums or classrooms. Our RCs, however, are more than just concrete and steel; they are where we forge our closest friendships, find exciting opportunities, and fight for intramural glory. In essence, they form a part of our identities for these four years (and beyond). This identity should be something we create, not something that the leadership decides fits its agenda.
When our residential colleges were first renamed, students had little say. We should not allow that to happen again. Many of us chose to come to Yale-NUS to build a college identity from scratch, and we have the perfect opportunity to do so now, by making our views on our permanent RC names heard. Talk to people who have a say in this: your Rector, Vice-Rector, student representatives in the Residential College Advisory Committee, and Student Government representatives. We need to take ownership over our residential colleges—let us start with our names.