Saturday, October 23, 2021

A Means to an End: The Strategic Failures of the Yale-NUS Experiment

Story | Ryan Kueh (he/him), Guest Writer
Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)

Last Friday, National University of Singapore’s (NUS) President Tan Eng Chye announced the “merger,” or rather, dissolution, of the 1,000-strong Yale-NUS College and the 860-strong University Scholars Programme (USP) to make way for a 2,000-strong interdisciplinary college.  This raises the question: Why would NUS dissolve two perfectly functioning programs to form a marginally larger college that cannot guarantee the quality of education of the previous two? 

If the true intent was to expand a liberal arts education, the expansion of Yale-NUS would’ve been the rational next step given its successes and pedagogical support from the public and private sectors. Here, I seek to explore an alternative rationalization to the conclusion of Yale-NUS, one that was not driven by political motivations or civil liberty clashes, but one that involved a long-term strategy to establish a liberal arts tradition in Singapore.

Phase 1: The purpose of liberal arts in Singapore

In an online statement, Yale University President Peter Salovey mentioned that NUS President Tan Eng Chye has been planning for this “larger strategic realignment” since 2018. The timing indicated is an intriguing one, as only the second batch of Yale-NUS students would have graduated by then. This means that either a premature decision for such a realignment was made, or that a long-term strategic realignment plan had been in place since the conception of Yale-NUS. To better understand this, one has to go back to the incentives each university had in this joint venture.

For Yale, establishing a college with NUS seemed to be an opportunity to spread its legacy into Asia, hoping that the premier Asian institution would support the ever-difficult expansion of the liberal arts into the region. Previous analogs of American institutions in Asia have all been fraught with academic freedom pressures and resistance against a “liberal education” (e.g New York University Abu Dhabi and Duke Kunshan University). Singapore was a promising candidate for such an expansion, boasting two premier institutions (NUS and Nanyang Technological University) and a large pool of local academic talent. Academic freedom was one of the salient “what-ifs,” but one that was worth the gamble given Singapore’s Western-educated elites and “openness” to suggestions on remodeling education.

For NUS, the Yale co-branding would have allowed the university to piggyback on Yale’s long-standing academic legacy and excellence, lending NUS the international prestige it lacks despite topping formal higher-education rankings. Yale-NUS would have boosted its international reputation and additionally serve as a test bed for a fully liberal arts education in Singapore, where its success could set the ground for a larger institution. The joint venture was planned to be a bastion of intellectual rigor and academic freedom, a project that attracted the best minds around the world—students, faculty, and administration—culminating in a cocktail of diverse talent to lead Singapore’s push for global academic excellence.

This innovative win-win solution prompted Yale and NUS to sign the original memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2011, with a clause that gave either party the opportunity to withdraw in 2025. During the signing of the MOU, then Minister for Education Ng Eng Hen commented that although a liberal arts education was a new concept, it was one that would eventually be valued in social and professional spheres. If such a system worked, the ideal (and rational) choice would have been to expand Yale-NUS to benefit the larger community.

Phase 2: Scaling up the liberal model

It is unclear if  NUS’s plan for scaling up was arranged to coincide with the review of the Yale-NUS partnership. The expansion could have manifested in one of two ways: 1) subsuming USP under Yale-NUS, or 2) subsuming Yale-NUS under USP.  Given the amount of resources invested into the Yale-NUS experiment, option 1 would have been ideal. Yale-NUS would have expanded to a 2,000-strong college whilst retaining all of the abovementioned benefits the Yale name brought to the partnership. Option 2 would have been the backup option. Given the amount of investment funneled into Yale-NUS, subsuming the college under USP would have been financially irrational. So why did NUS opt for the latter, financially irrational option? Why would NUS go through all the effort for a “test bed”—one that succeeded—just to eventually subsume it under another program? Why would it commit to an expensive, two-decade joint venture, only to merge it with USP when it could have used the resources to develop other faculties instead? 

Such a merger would produce more ambiguity than certainty, as clashes in the priorities and pedagogies of the two programs—teaching styles, student interests, conflicting focuses, admission criteria—raise more questions than answers. NUS would not have been able to guarantee that such a merger would work as well as the smaller, 1,000-strong student model. The hope of continuing the affiliation was perhaps a miscalculation on both sides—Yale and its valuation of its brand’s prestige, NUS and its confidence in its own strategic excellence—leading to the conclusion of two successful liberal arts programs to make way for the “New College.” The divergent agendas of Yale and NUS were thus conflicting motivations that led to the eventual split.

With that being said, NUS didn’t need Yale’s approval for its liberal education goals. The liberal education machine had already been constructed with resources and systems in place to expand the success of its testbed. Long-term faculty would have had personal path dependencies to deter them from leaving, whilst transient students would prove all but a temporary problem. Caught in the middle, Yale-NUS and USP were just means to an end. Commenting on the dissolution, Yale mentioned that “we would have liked nothing better than to continue its development,” supporting the notion that the realignment was always an NUS-led decision—a decision that was made without the consultation of or concern for its partner and any impacted stakeholders. 

Additionally, one also has to consider that finances played an integral part in this separation. Ever since its inception, Yale-NUS has stayed afloat with the backing of  NUS, the Ministry of Education (MOE), and its donors, with Yale failing to pull their weight in capital-to-equity ratio. Despite being a name partner supposedly on equal footing with Yale, NUS has always had the operational and fiscal control over this joint venture, control that perhaps rendered Yale a mere onlooker.

End of Yale-NUS, but not the end for liberal arts education

Tracing the decision trajectory of YNC’s merger, one thing is clear: NUS acted in bad faith. From the inception of the Yale-NUS testbed to the conclusion of the Yale-NUS program, our stakeholders never had the agency to decide the college’s path, and we were always a means to an end. 

For those who doubt liberal arts as an educational model, make no mistake that this “strategic realignment” is, without doubt, a product of the success of liberal arts. The dropping of “Yale” in its program description does not make it any more conservative, nor does the inclusion of “Yale” make it any more liberal. Yale-NUS is a culture and ecosystem of its own, one that will persist within all of its members. With this closure, all eyes are on us. Skeptics are circling and jumping at any opportunity to prove that we are a “cesspool of the American far-left.” But the jury is still out on our success, and it may not be decided for years whether or not Yale-NUS was a successful institution. Let us take what we have as an opportunity to demonstrate how the unique culture we’ve created will serve us as leaders into the future. Let us demonstrate maturity in thought and action, and prove that Yale-NUS is a fabled institution, not a defunct one.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article stated that USP has 960 students. A student from USP has since reached out to inform us that there are, in fact, 860 students in USP. We apologize for the error.

1 COMMENT

  1. Yale NUS was conceive in 2011 in a different world or what some may say a better world than today. Before brexit before Trump before Corvid. Singapore is simply hedging its bet whether the world would become a kinder or gentle world where liberalism and liberal education play an important role or where the new world is run with an iron fist with an iron glove.
    Sadly with the implosion of the new corvid world order the latter could be true. science and technology would be the new age but hopefully not a new dark age made more perverted by sinister science.

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