Saturday, October 23, 2021

NUS President Tan Eng Chye Challenged, Dismissed Students’ Concerns in Heated Town Hall Q&A

Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor and Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief
Graphic | Siddharth Mohan Roy (he/him), Social Media Manager
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

This is part three of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part two, which addresses the transition process to the New College, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates. 

At the town hall on Tuesday, NUS President Tan Eng Chye addressed Yale-NUS College students directly, for the first time since his announcement that the school would be closing more than a month ago.

During the live Q&A section toward the end of the town hall, many students stepped up to the microphones and spoke over Zoom to ask questions, air their grievances, and ask Tan for acknowledgment of the hurt caused by the lack of accountability behind the decision.

However, Tan repeatedly dismissed and challenged student concerns in his responses, and avoided acknowledging the hurt caused to students by the decision even when asked to do so several times. Most students were left visibly and audibly upset after the town hall concluded.

An informal poll conducted by The Octant on a college-wide Telegram group for Yale-NUS students after the town hall asked how satisfied students were on a scale of 1 to 5. 

Of the 319 respondents—almost one-third of the entire Yale-NUS student population—95% of students ranked their level of satisfaction at 1 or 2. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they were “completely unsatisfied” with the town hall.

A pie chart of responses to The Octant‘s informal poll of 319 students. On a scale of 1 to 5, 65% of respondents rated their level of satisfaction at 1, and 30% rated their level of satisfaction at 2.

The town hall saw the largest number of pre-submitted questions of any town hall in Yale-NUS history. At the end of the live Q&A portion, there were still dozens of students queuing at the microphones and raising their hands on Zoom with their questions unanswered.

In part one of The Octant’s coverage of the town hall, Prof. Tan described financial considerations behind the decision to close Yale-NUS and explained his vision for an NUS-wide curricular restructuring. In part two, Tan described the need for New College policies to fit into the wider NUS ecosystem, which may affect several autonomous Yale-NUS policies.

Unhappy NUS Students and Faculty? “Well, I’d like to talk to them”

At press time, almost 15,000 people have signed the #NoMoreTopDown petition, while professors, alumni, and other observers have also expressed strong disapproval. 

In light of the sizable amount of opposition, a student asked Tan if he could promise to engage with students meaningfully. She said that despite the opposition, she and her peers in Yale-NUS and the wider NUS felt “deeply upset” and did not feel like their concerns had been taken seriously.

“Unfortunately, most of my peers hesitate to even attend these town halls, because we no longer expect that genuine conversation will happen, and we fear that we will be disappointed again.”

“Yet, if we want to encourage our students to care beyond ourselves, as Education Minister Chan Chun Sing has announced in Parliament, we need to build a community where students can feel safe when they express their opinions in a hope of contributing to a more inclusive and excellent community in NUS.”

Added to that, she pointed to the existing regulation at NUS that considers actions that damage the university’s reputation and interest as a “serious offence.” She said: “A regulation like this has contributed to a real sense of fear that anything we say or do publicly, even if it is out of love for our university, can be construed to be against the interests of the university.”

She then asked Tan: “Will you ensure that these popular sentiments are not just heard or taken into account, but actually engaged upon in a transparent manner that meaningfully affects your executive decisions, specifically your merger decision?”

“What concrete actions will you, as the President of NUS, take in response to the fact that so many people have expressed their strong disapproval towards your plans?”

As the student spoke, many members of the in-person audience snapped their fingers in agreement. At the end of her question, the audience broke into loud applause.

In response, Tan said that there was some “misinformation” in the #NoMoreTopDown petition. 

“First of all, if you look at the petition, it has actually had quite a bit of misinformation. The College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is not a merger. The College of Design and Engineering (CDE) and CHS, we went through more than a year of consultations.”

“I think integrity is extremely important. If you voice your displeasure, please rely on facts.”

Yale-NUS was not consulted prior to the closure announcement, with its president and governing board being completely sidelined in the decision making that led to the closure. 

He then denied that there was any significant opposition to his decisions from within the NUS community and questioned the student on the truth of her statement.

“Have you actually asked your friends and faculty members?” Tan challenged. “For every one that says no, I’m sure I can find 10 others that actually have the reverse experience.”

When the student replied that she and many others had indeed spoken to a lot of their friends and faculty in NUS, Tan retorted: “Well, I’d like to talk to them.”

Tan did not address the unhappiness from students and faculty across the NUS community on various platforms, such as on the petition page and on The Ridge, the NUS Student Union’s publication.

The Octant had also reached out to Tan and various other members of the NUS management, including Prof. Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost, in the month following the announcement, but requests for meetings with them have received no replies. 

When the student asked Tan whether his statement meant that student voices would be heard, and what concrete actions would be taken, Tan replied: “I’d like to hear exactly, really, what troubles them. What exactly they are unhappy about.”

“If I think these sorts of concerns are justified, we will certainly try to make changes and refinements. We have had, actually, a lot of engagements with our students and faculty members. I can say that the sentiments that we get are very different from the sentiments that you get.” 

“I look forward to listening to them, as we always do. And we will refine our approach as we see fit.”

Prior to the town hall, various statements had already been made by students across NUS; faculty, alumni, and parents from Yale-NUS; and independent observers, to which Tan has not yet given direct responses. 

Tan replies to the student’s statement that NUS students and faculty are unhappy with the decisions: “Well, I’d like to talk to them.”

A student also pointed out during the Q&A that the consultations with CDE and CHS, which Tan said proved the petition inaccurate, only involved a few student representatives behind closed doors, with no input from the wider student bodies. 

The student also said that Tan’s response detracted from the “main meat” of the petition. He continued: “We do not want you to debate us on semantics. We want you to address NUS’s recent, and, actually, continuous process of making decisions from the top and behind the scenes.”

In response, Tan said: “It is not appropriate to bring in the other stakeholders—even, in this case, the Yale-NUS governing board.”

“There are other cases, like the CDE. But that’s something which impacts the entire body.”

Since the closure announcement, the college—from students, staff, to faculty—have been grappling with grief and anger. Many students find it hard to stay focused and motivated while trying to process the immensity of this event together. 

“Just imagine,” Tan said, “had I actually taken the approach to say: ‘Okay, shall we have half a year where we talk about whether NUS should disassociate itself from this partnership with Yale?’ I think this would have actually a tremendous impact on the Yale-NUS community.”

“Can you perhaps think in this way? I am actually preventing the Yale-NUS program from being diluted”

During the live Q&A section of the town hall, another student said that the community could not move on from the decision without the NUS leadership taking ownership and showing that they were listening to their voices.

She said: “When I think about what leadership means, it means having a vision and conviction to progress forward, yes. But I also think it means having care, consideration, and compassion for the people that a leader is supposed to lead.”

“How will you recognize and acknowledge the hurt that your decision-making process has caused to thousands of students, staff, and faculty? Are you willing to commit to learning from this experience and prevent such widespread harm from being caused again in the future? Are you willing to incorporate greater inclusivity and involvement of stakeholders?”

Tan replied: “Change is often difficult. And it’s often difficult to face change. So, I hope that the Yale-NUS community can look forward, rather than backward.”

“Can you perhaps think in this way? I’m actually preventing the Yale-NUS program from being diluted. Right?”

Many students reacted in disbelief toward Tan’s statement, with some members of the in-person audience breaking into incredulous laughter.

The student, in response to Tan’s statement, replied: “I just wanted to point out the fact that answering my question with questions of your own is literally not showing compassion and active listening to what students and the greater Yale-NUS community is trying to say.”

She continued: “I think we are all really genuinely trying very hard to understand all the financial and other behind-the-scenes decisions that are being conducted. But I don’t believe that this same degree of empathy and active listening is also being accorded to us by the administration.”

Tan did not respond to the student’s comment.

Another student then stepped up to the microphone, and said: “Right now, I’m not asking for more details and clarifications on the New College, and the process or rationale behind the decision.”

“I am simply asking this: Do you know? Do you understand? Do you care? And if not, why?”

In response, Tan said: “It may not seem that I care, but I do care. That’s the reason why we have tried to answer many of your questions.”

“But I just hope that the community can calm down a little,” he continued. “Try to listen. Listen to our perspective, too.”

Tan said the key concern is to minimize the impact on existing students by ensuring a “full Yale-NUS experience,” and protecting the livelihoods of existing staff and faculty. Because the program is not sustainable, he said, it would be irresponsible to continue the college by taking in another batch of students. 

Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, the student said while Tan did answer her questions on the surface, on a deeper level, it “still betrays a lack of understanding and care” about the “psychological distress and turmoil that this decision has inflicted” on the Yale-NUS community. 

“He did not take the time and effort to actually process my question and understand why and what I’m asking,” she added. 

Decision-making process: The downside is that “I have incurred the anger of the Yale-NUS community”

A student then asked about the cost-benefit analysis behind the decision, and what NUS stood to lose from making the decision. 

Tan replied: “This decision, good and bad. Good, in the sense that I would have made accessible some of the key benefits of Yale-NUS and USP to students in NUS.”

“Bad, of course, in the sense that I have incurred the anger of the Yale-NUS community.” 

Tan continued: “Largely, I want you to see that I’m looking at the interests of the entire NUS.”

When the student pressed Tan on why he thought Yale-NUS students were angry, Tan responded while waving his hand towards the audience: “I fully understand it. From your questions, I can fully understand. But let me just try and say it again: Let’s cool down and think about it.” 

“I think you are in a very unenviable position. I tried to explain to you that, if we do nothing, your program will continue to be diluted. And you are the ones who eventually will suffer, starting from next year.”

Another student addressed Tan’s previous comment about the decision being made in the interest of NUS as a public university, as well as Tan’s previous comments that the decision was made in consideration of “an important stakeholder” in MOE. 

The student said that the decision implied that NUS was willing to sacrifice the interests of students and faculty in order to pursue its institutional interests. The student then asked about Tan’s plans to assure students and faculty that NUS still values their interests, and to heal the breach of trust.

To which Tan replied: “I’m happy to work with your Yale-NUS senior leadership to continue talking to some of you.” 

“I know it will take some time for you all to accept this. But please also bear in mind that there are certain circumstances.”

“It’s just quite obvious, at least from my point of view, where the college is heading. There are some trade-offs in whatever decisions we make. So we make the decision in the interest of the current batch of students.”

“I hope to slowly win all of you over.”

Another student asked how the NUS management would ensure that student representatives have a final say in the New College committee’s overarching decision-making process, rather than being token representatives. He then asked if a procedure could be set up to ensure that staff, students, and faculty on the ground can be heard while decisions are being made.

Tan responded: “I don’t think that students should have the final say, but I think that the community should have an important say.”

“Students have only one perspective. They come from a perspective of something that they don’t know.”

“While they are important, they cannot be the only say. We should hear from the students, but I think we should take a more holistic view.”

Tan continued, responding to the question on if procedures can be put in place for voices on the ground to be heard, as well as for committee decisions to be communicated with transparency: “Our New College committee has student representatives, and the student representatives will be the conduit. So feel free to submit and to surface your ideas to the student reps, and we’ll take that into consideration.”

Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, the student said having student representatives as conduits was not enough because “that’s what we have now.” 

He highlighted that there should be a formalized channel by which students and staff can be made aware of the decision-making, provide input, and know how their feedback is evaluated.

“Students and staff cannot simply ‘surface our ideas’ to the committees without knowing what’s happening—how else is NUS meant to see that ‘holistic view’ of its stakeholders’ needs?” 

As the town hall concluded with many students still waiting in line with questions unasked, the student moderator asked if Tan would be open to more dialogues in the future.

In response, Tan said: “Again, I’m open. And I hope to slowly win all of you over.”

Students: “I came to this town hall without much hope, and I left with even less”

Most students interviewed left the town hall unsatisfied and unhappy. 

Speaking to The Octant directly after the town hall, Daniel Suresh Thomas ‘25 said: “I came to this town hall without much hope, and I left with even less.” 

“What I felt from this town hall, and what I got the most, is that Prof. Tan Eng Chye doesn’t see Yale-NUS as a part of the wider NUS community. He sees it as a separate entity and, in essence, has decided that our views should not be considered and our perspectives should be ignored.”

“In the various town halls, there has been a flip-flopping and skirting of the real issue. There have been various reasons raised [for Yale-NUS’s closure]. First of all, it was to enhance the interdisciplinary approach. Then, we found out that the real reason was finances. There has been no transparency and no clarity.” 

“I think that this pill would be much easier to swallow if everyone knew exactly what they were swallowing.”

Josh ‘24, who raised a question during the live Q&A section, said: “Prof. Tan was repeating material we already know. It’s ironic that he described his problem as us not listening to his point of view, when all he could offer us was the recycled talking points from his previous statements.” 

Josh added: “I was surprised to hear Prof. Tan say that being upset about top-down decision-making is primarily a Yale-NUS sentiment. He implies that NUS students are mostly happy or accepting about previous, equally top-down decisions NUS administration has made, such as the formation of CHS and the CDE merger.” 

Roberts: “I wish the session had gone a bit differently”

Speaking to The Octant on the day after the town hall, Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS, who was one of the panelists on stage at the town hall, said: “I resonate with the feelings of many members of the community when they wish for Yale-NUS to be recognized as successful and valuable.”

Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students and panelist at the town hall, shared these sentiments. He told The Octant in an email: “Yale-NUS is a special community that holds great meaning and significance to so many of us. That was never more evident than through the sentiments shared during the town hall.” 

When asked about student sentiments that Tan showed a lack of empathy during the town hall, Roberts said: “I think that he came and he wanted to explain his decision to the community, and I think the community wanted to feel seen by him emotionally, and to have their emotions recognized by him. 

“I think he was trying to do that, but I am not sure that it was entirely successful.”

“I think he is a calm and reserved person. I’m glad he came, and I wish the session had gone a bit differently.”

The Octant is verifying the statements that Tan made during the town hall, and will publish another report soon.

This is part three of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part two, which addresses the transition process to the New College, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.

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