Saturday, December 4, 2021

Closure Was Accelerated While in a “Position of Strength”: NUS President Tan Eng Chye

Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor and Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

Yesterday evening, a virtual town hall for the families of students from Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) was convened to provide more information about the recently announced “merger” between the two colleges and the formation of the New College.

Various senior management members of Yale-NUS, USP, and NUS helmed the town hall, including Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS; Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost of NUS; Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS; Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS; and Kang Hway Chuan, Director of USP.

Since the “merger” was made public on August 27, there has been little clarity on the deliberations behind the heavy-handed decision. Yesterday’s town hall came after more than 260 parents of Yale-NUS College students demanded a meeting with Prof. Tan Eng Chye to discuss the reasons for the college’s closure. 

The meeting was scheduled exactly three weeks after the shock announcement. It was revealed that the decision to close Yale-NUS was accelerated by NUS President Tan while the school was in a “position of strength,” before its finances diminished. Several other important details were revealed, particularly in relation to the timing of the decision, statistics on financial issues, and transition plans, in response to many concerned parents’ questions. 

Timeliness: “merger would not have made sense” last year

NUS President Tan explained that the decision was part of a wider goal to introduce “general education” and a “common curriculum” for NUS students. He added that the decision was timely in light of recent developments across NUS, such as the formation of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) late last year and the College of Design and Engineering, announced concurrently with the New College. He claimed that these moves were part of a broader change in NUS toward a system “similar to Yale-NUS.” 

CHS, a collaboration between the Faculty of Science (FOS) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), was an attempt to scale up interdisciplinary education by adding a common curriculum, similar to that of Yale-NUS, to the existing modules. 

Referring to the “merger” between Yale-NUS and USP, NUS President Tan then explained: “Last year, a merger would not make sense, because there will be incompatibilities between Yale-NUS and USP (sic).”

NUS President Tan said NUS has since changed four of its major faculties to adopt a framework that is similar to Yale-NUS. He continued: “Because of that, USP also has to change to adapt to a framework that is similar to Yale-NUS. That makes a merger possible.”

The two colleges share many common features, including smaller group teaching, a common curriculum, and residential living and learning, as acknowledged by Minister Chan Chun Sing in Parliament this Monday (Sept 13). There are also significant differences. For example, Yale-NUS students select from a range of 14 majors specifically designed for the college at the end of the second year, whereas USP students are attached to a major faculty at NUS upon matriculation. Moreover, while Yale-NUS has a four-year residential program, USP only requires students to live on campus for two years.  

NUS President Tan did not elaborate on the incompatibilities between Yale-NUS and USP, the similarities between the merged colleges and Yale-NUS’s educational framework, or how NUS’s previous steps in the broader interdisciplinary roadmap now make the “merger” between Yale-NUS and USP possible. 

The New College, Tan said, will be an honors college. Amidst concerns that the decision was a de facto closure of a liberal arts college, Prof. Ho Teck Hua said that while the New College is not strictly a liberal arts college by the U.S. definition, it would still consist of the “fine elements of liberal education.”

According to Ho, some hallmarks of a liberal education include immersive learning, small class sizes, residential learning, and critical thinking.

Financials: “I have basically accelerated the closure.”

NUS President Tan also reiterated that although financial sustainability was not the main consideration in the decision to close Yale-NUS, it was a major factor. However, during the town hall, he repeatedly responded by pointing to finances when answering parents’ questions on the actual motivations behind the closure.

In response to a parent’s question on the aspects of American liberal arts colleges that are incompatible with NUS’s or Singapore’s educational goals, Tan explained that liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are primarily funded through either an endowment or tuition fees. In order to provide accessible and affordable education, Tan said it was important to keep tuition fees low and maintain a high endowment.

Yale-NUS’s endowment target was more than $1 billion. However, despite strong financial support from the Ministry of Education (MOE), only $87 million was raised towards the endowment target. 

As of March 2021, Yale-NUS’s current endowment stands at $429.8 million.

Addressing the financial support provided by MOE, Tan explained: “Singapore has an advantage in that the government provides very strong matching. In the last 10 years, to build this endowment, the government had a seed funding. On top of the seed funding, the first $50 million gets 3:1 matching, like in most institutions. Then, for subsequent donations, you get 1.5 matching.”

Tan added that NUS helped to raise 72% of the $87 million, while Yale-NUS raised the remaining 28%. The Octant has reached out to NUS President Tan to clarify the timeline of the endowment target and fundraising efforts. 

“We worked hard, but we were actually very far away from the target. Because we took away the tuition fee consideration, we can only look at endowment funding,” Tan said. “We haven’t got the right model.”

Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Education, said in Parliament on Monday (September 13) that MOE provided $48 million to Yale-NUS in the Financial Year 2020. This was more than double the amount provided to other NUS faculties, such as FASS and FOS. 

According to Tan, this $48 million “premium funding” would revert to “normal funding” in March 2022, and the gap between normal and premium funding amounted to “at least $24 million.” The gap would increase every year due to the total income contribution component, which Tan did not elaborate on.

“Because of this, you would have to trim the benefits. You would not be able to have the eight-students-to-one-faculty ratio, and you may not even be able to provide the generous financial aid that Yale-NUS is now providing,” Tan continued. 

Yale-NUS switched to a need-aware admissions policy for the 2021 admission cycle. Jasmine Seah, Director of Admissions, said that 39% of students in the Class of 2025 are receiving financial aid or merit-based scholarships, compared to 57% of students in the Class of 2024. 

Tan said: “I did not have to do the merger. And if I didn’t do the merger, the status quo for Yale-NUS could not stay. Yale-NUS would be diluted as we go along. And perhaps five years down the road, Yale-NUS would still have to face closure.”

“We feel that this is the best time, because we are combining [Yale-NUS and USP] in a position of strength, rather than allowing Yale-NUS to dilute and possibly disappear. I have basically accelerated the closure. There is no need to actually do that, but [because] my entire system in NUS has changed to be similar to Yale-NUS, such a merger makes sense.”

Tan added that MOE, after learning of the decision to close Yale-NUS in 2025, was willing to continue the “premium funding” for the next four years, until Yale-NUS’s last class of students graduates.

Addressing a question on what other options were considered in lieu of the closure, Tan assured that the NUS management had considered “many other options,” before ultimately deciding that “combining” Yale-NUS and USP was the best way forward. He did not elaborate on what the other options considered were.

Stakeholders: “All the appropriate consultations” were made 

A key concern among parents and students was the lack of consultation with faculty, staff, and students while the closure of Yale-NUS was being deliberated by NUS senior leadership. 

In response to this, NUS President Tan claimed that he has made “all the appropriate consultations,” including with the NUS Board of Trustees, the Yale administration, and MOE. In early August, the 21 members on the NUS Board of Trustees then endorsed the decision in a unanimous vote.

“We cannot have more wider consultations,” he said, “because it is actually a sensitive discussion between NUS and Yale University on matters which focus on strategies as well as finance.” 

More details about his behind-the-scenes discussions with Yale University in July were also revealed. “I was actually anticipating that I may take six to nine months for this discussion,” Tan said, referring to his conversation with Peter Salovey, President of Yale University. In reality, it only took two weeks for Yale to “acknowledge” and note that it was NUS’s prerogative under an agreement between the two universities.

Tan said: “This is a very considered decision, one that is made in the interests of NUS as a public university. As a public university, one of our most important stakeholders is the MOE.”

After the decision was finalized, the Yale and NUS senior managements moved quickly to announce the closure of the two colleges before the admissions cycle began in September to ensure that no new applicants would be misled, Tan explained.

When questioned by a parent during the live Q&A segment on the ability of the NUS Board of Trustees and the Yale-NUS Governing Board to exercise their fiduciary duties, given that the decision was presented to both as faits accomplis, NUS President Tan responded with an assurance of the boards’ independence.

“Our Board of Trustees acted independently. Teck Hua is on the board, we have been on the board, and I’m sure many of you have been on boards before,” Tan said. “You would know very well: How can you force a board? That would be unheard of.”

Tan and another member of the NUS Board of Trustees, Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, are also part of the Yale-NUS Governing Board

Transition to the New College

There are no concrete plans for the New College curriculum at the moment. However, Tan pointed out that unlike Yale-NUS, the New College does not have to hire new faculty to build its curriculum completely from scratch. 

Instead, Tan said that there were already talented faculty members from Yale-NUS, USP, and the wider NUS who would help to design the new curriculum. Ho added that this curriculum is expected to be developed within six to nine months.

Roberts also said that faculty would not be expected to do additional work with the New College on top of teaching the Yale-NUS load, in order not to overwhelm them.

When a parent asked during the live Q&A segment whether the New College could be delayed to ensure that a best-in-class curriculum could be built, the panelists did not respond.

During the transition period as Yale-NUS shuts down, Tan and Roberts assured that there were plans in place to bring in faculty from NUS should the need arise due to faculty turnover. Roberts added that Yale-NUS is still committed to offering the full range of majors and diverse classes, even as the Yale-NUS student population continues to shrink as the remaining batches graduate. She said that Yale-NUS classes will be opened up to New College students to maintain an appropriate class size and level of diversity.

Tan and Roberts also said that a small office would be set up within the New College to support students who will remain in Yale-NUS after 2025. This group of students includes those taking the Double Degree Programme with Law, as well as students who take a gap semester or year.

Prof. Kang Hway Chuan, meanwhile, expects a greater sense of continuity for USP students despite the earlier transition to the New College. Unlike Yale-NUS students, USP students will transition to the New College in the next academic year, together with the inaugural class of New College students.

Kang pointed out that the USP graduation requirements parallel those of the New College, as the major requirements for both programs are fulfilled in the various NUS faculties and schools.

He said: “It makes sense, in a way, for USP to join smoothly into the New College curriculum. In fact, USP faculty constantly come up with new modules, so each year there will be a greater choice of modules.”

“If you think of this as a disruption… you should think of it as a good disruption, because it increases your choices.”

Closure?

With many parents continuing to ask questions about the decision toward the end of the two-hour-long town hall, Ho interrupted NUS President Tan in the middle of his response to a question toward the end of the live Q&A segment: “I would like everybody here to look ahead and look forward to the New College. We’ll get input from everybody, and I hope that we can create a New College that is truly outstanding: a world-class institution we can look back on 50 years from now.”

“I’m optimistic that the New College will do really well because, from day one, we consult everybody,” Ho said, pointing to the various members of the Yale-NUS and USP administrations’ involvement in the transition committees.

“I want everybody to go away from this town hall with a little kind of hope. I know it’s hard, I know it’s very difficult, but we’re not closing down or starting new things. This is a merger, and we do create a new entity called the New College. And we promise to combine the best of both USP and Yale-NUS. ”

The Octant has reached out to Prof. Tan Eng Chye for clarifications on some of his statements. 

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