Saturday, October 23, 2021

NUS’s “First #MeToo Incident” Was in 2019; New College to be Less Autonomous: Tan Eng Chye

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 two 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 three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates. 

At the town hall on Sept. 28, NUS President Tan Eng Chye addressed Yale-NUS College students directly, for the first time since his announcement that the school would be closing over a month ago.

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 this report, we focus on how Tan described the need for the New College policies to fit into the wider NUS ecosystem, which may affect several Yale-NUS policies, including those on sexual misconduct. Tan also described aspects of the transition to the New College, and told Yale-NUS students to “think more positively” about the move.

Tan then fielded questions on accountability and transparency during a heated live Q&A session. This will be covered in part three of The Octant’s series of reports on the town hall.

New College will be less autonomous; need to be “mindful of the broader culture”

As an autonomous college, some policies at Yale-NUS are distinct from those of NUS.

For example, unlike NUS, Yale-NUS does not make the Faculty Code of Conduct public, which has since become a cause for concern in the Yale-NUS community.

Meanwhile, while NUS has sexual misconduct policies, Yale-NUS developed its own sexual misconduct policies with additional details for greater transparency, such as the timeline of each step of sexual misconduct case proceedings.

Other autonomous Yale-NUS policies include dispute resolution procedures suited for its residential environment and event policies where prior approval for smaller-scale student organization events is not required.

Despite the autonomy Yale-NUS enjoys, New College policies will have to fit into the wider NUS ecosystem instead, Tan said.

Some Yale-NUS policies that were the focal point of the town hall included the comprehensive support for sexual assault survivors and gender-inclusive residential housing, which were implemented after students on the ground lobbied for them.

Responding to whether these policies would be implemented in the New College, Tan said: “I know that Yale-NUS has a special concern for this group of students. That doesn’t mean that NUS does not.”

“A lot of your practices are quite consistent with our practices. Maybe there are slight nuances here and there,” he said. “The New College fits into the NUS ecosystem, and the nuancing and the positioning of the New College has to be consistent with the nuancing and positioning of the larger NUS ecosystem.”

“You must also be mindful of the broader culture when you want to push certain practices. You must be sensitive to adverse reactions. So we have to do this carefully calibrated (sic).”

When pressed for a more concrete response on gender-inclusive housing, Tan pointed to a similar discussion that was tabled while planning for the establishment of University Town in 2011.

He said: “We did get the feedback of parents, and parents actually have slightly different thinking. We have to be very mindful in the context of the larger ecosystem. We have to do certain things that are more acceptable to the larger ecosystem. You don’t want to build a small enclave, where there can be possibly some tension and conflict.” 

“I think we will take this on board, but we want to make sure that the larger ecosystem is comfortable.”

The decision to close Yale-NUS was also met with parental pushback. After the “merger” was announced, numerous parents of current and deferred students and alumni of Yale-NUS expressed strong disapproval against the closure and concerns for their children’s academic experience. In early September, more than 260 parents penned a letter to the President, demanding more clarity on the reasons behind the closure. 

The NUS management did not consult with parents to gather their feedback prior to this shock announcement. 

Tan said the New College policies had to be mindful of the “larger ecosystem.”

Yale-NUS’s sexual misconduct policies and the “first #MeToo incident”

Still, Tan acknowledged that there are numerous aspects of Yale-NUS policies that NUS can benefit from, such as the sexual misconduct policies. 

“In 2019, that was our first #MeToo incident,” Tan said. “We actually studied the Yale-NUS system, and took a lot of learning from the Yale-NUS system. [We] implemented it quite quickly, within five weeks.”

On April 18, 2019, Monica Baey, a then-NUS student, posted stories on her Instagram account about Nicholas Lim, a fellow NUS student who had filmed her showering. The incident had happened five months prior, and Lim was let off with a conditional warning, a one-semester suspension, and an apology letter. 

The #MeToo hashtag, however, was not used in any of Baey’s Instagram stories.

On April 30 of that year, NUS convened a committee to review the university’s sexual misconduct and survivor support policies. Six weeks later, the committee submitted its recommendations to NUS, with reference to similar policy changes and programs in Yale-NUS. 

NUS began implementing the recommendations in the following months, including introducing tougher sanctions for sexual misconduct in June and setting up the Victim Care Unit in August, which has since been renamed the NUS Care Unit.

Tan said he was unable to give details of which current Yale-NUS sexual misconduct and survivor support policies could be extended to the rest of NUS, as a formal review and consultation will be under the purview of the New College planning committee. 

Reni Chng ‘21 was part of the ground-up initiatives by Yale-NUS students calling for a better sexual misconduct policy and survivor support system. Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, Chng said they were “confused” by Tan’s description of the 2019 incident as the “first #MeToo incident,” as Baey did not use the hashtag in her calls for better survivor support in NUS.

Chng added: “Survivors in NUS had already been calling for better support and reporting channels long before 2019. If he wanted to reference the first incident to get nationwide attention, the orientation camp incidents back in 2016 had made similar waves in the papers.”

A student coordinator from the NUS student organization Students for a Safer NUS, which advocates improvements in NUS’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, shared Chng’s opinion. 

Speaking in their personal capacity, the student noted: “His framing it as a ‘#MeToo’ incident seems to downplay the damage sexual violence has on survivors and twists it into something positive.” 

“However, it was the result of many institutional failures in NUS that left survivors in serious harm before this. This wouldn’t have changed had one’s story of not just sexual violence, but how the institution failed them, became known nationwide.”

Chng then said that much of Yale-NUS’s sexual misconduct and survivor support policy improvements were student-driven and student-initiated, and expressed doubts that Yale-NUS’s level of responsiveness to student feedback could be replicated in the New College. 

Our first campus-wide sexual respect survey was worked on by students. There are survivor support initiatives which students played a major role in organizing as well,” Chng said, pointing to the sexual misconduct policy reform in 2018 and Take Back the Night, an event that called upon the community to stand together for sexual empowerment and respect, as examples.

Chng continued: “It was not the case that students would give feedback once and wait months for admin to work on it. Students were part of every step of the process.”

“The Yale-NUS system that they ‘took a lot of learning from’ is one built on the work of students, made possible because administration worked with us rather than top-down. There is no use trying to learn from the product if the method is ignored.” 

“I was at the town hall after the Monica Baey incident and heard NUS students repeatedly voice frustration at the lack of say they have in the very policies that affect their own safety. These top-down decisions reflect that this fundamental approach has not changed.” 

“If ‘less autonomy’ is to be the starting ground of New College, I have no confidence that sexual climate related policies in this environment will be ones that support student safety.”

Transition Period: A Full Yale-NUS Experience?

Committees with student representations:

Umbrella Committee Chair: Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost, NUS

Common Curriculum Chair: Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs), Yale-NUS

Facilities Management Chair: Koh Yan Leng, Vice President (Campus Infrastructure), NUS

Student and Residential Life Chair: Leong Ching, Vice Provost (Student Life), NUS

Communications Working Group: Ovidia Lim-Rajaram, Chief Communications Officer, NUS

Admissions Working Group: Kang Hway Chuan, Director, University Scholars Programme

Committees without student representations:

Staff Appointments Chair: Sylvia Yau, Director (Office of Human Resources), NUS

Faculty Appointments Chair: Professor Tan Tai Yong, President, Yale-NUS
The seven working groups of the New College. Graphic: Siddharth Mohan Roy.

Both Tan and Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS, reiterated that they were committed to ensuring the “full experience” for Yale-NUS students in the remaining years of the school, by retaining a small student-faculty ratio, maintaining facilities, and retaining faculty and administrative staff members.

However, a student said during the live Q&A that they felt that NUS’s current promises would not adequately capture the full experience. The student then asked if NUS could provide concrete statements and goal markers to ensure that the full Yale-NUS experience provided by the school would be one that was reflective of student experience. 

In response, Tan said that NUS would work very closely with the Yale-NUS Governing Board and administration to ensure that many of the existing offerings at Yale-NUS would remain intact. He also said that NUS would provide Yale-NUS with resources if necessary. 

He continued: “I would also like you to think more positively in this particular angle. As Yale-NUS is winding down, we will be bringing in a group of New College students.” 

“This is actually a good opportunity for Yale-NUS to try to infuse some of your values into this group of New College students. And that is only possible when you interact with them, embrace them, and engage them. That’s something we hope you can try to embrace, and hopefully infuse some of the things that you hope to see in the New College.”

During the live Q&A section of the town hall, a student then asked about the possibility of delaying the formation of the New College in order to ensure a more effective and consultative planning process. 

Tan responded: “I’m confident that we can push the New College for implementation next year. I have already said so earlier that [at] NUS, we are quite accustomed to making even major curricular changes. We have enough dedicated and able faculty members to do that.”

As Yale-NUS students currently only gain access to NUS modules in the second round of the module registration exercise, Tan was also asked if Yale-NUS students could get a higher priority when applying to NUS classes in the transitional years ahead. Tan replied that NUS will “look sympathetically to this sort of issues,” and will work with Prof. Roberts to iron out the details. 

Adding to that, he said: “I guess some of the popular modules will be those in the School of Computing and also in the Business School.” 

Financial Compensation to Students, Staff, and Faculty On Transition Committees 

The student moderator asked if NUS will consider offering any financial compensation to the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the transition committees, given that such work is essential to the construction of the New College. 

Tan said that in order to ensure the same academic experience for Yale-NUS students in the next four years, the existing resources will have to remain unchanged, which meant that there could not be any reduction in fees. 

He added that the dwindling student population over the next four years would cause a reduction in revenue for Yale-NUS, but the “underlying costs” of ensuring the full academic experience remained the same. Tan said that this gap had to be met “either by NUS or by the reserves from Yale-NUS.”

We would like to express our gratitude to Reni Chng ‘21 for helping with this article

This is part two 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 three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates. 

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