Sunday, September 26, 2021

An Open Letter to the Donors of Yale-NUS College

Story | A Group of Students and Alumni of Yale-NUS College 
Photo | Martin Choo (he/him/his)

Today, a group of students and alumni from Yale-NUS reached out to The Octant with an open letter to the college’s donors. The full letter can be read below:

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Summary

We call on our donors:

  1. To approach NUS leadership and ask that they reconsider their unilateral decision to merge Yale-NUS College and USP (the de facto closure of Yale-NUS College, given the details shared by NUS leadership to date);
  2. If this decision is final, to be more transparent about the decision-making process behind this ‘merger’ and provide the ‘New College’ with the same autonomy, protections and liberal arts curriculum that Yale-NUS enjoys; and
  3. In the absence of greater transparency, to consider giving their support to an organisation that is more committed to engaging with its donors, students, faculty, alumni, and staff on a long-term basis. 

For the following three fundamental reasons:

  1. That, upon the closure of Yale-NUS College and the establishment of the New College, your gift will no longer be going towards the vision, objectives, and principles that many of you were promised through Yale-NUS;
  1. That you, the donors, deserve transparency and accountability in how your gift to Yale-NUS is used; and
  1. That the unilateral decision to close Yale-NUS College will diminish public trust in and the international reputation of Singaporean higher education institutions, calling into question the strength and reliability of their partnerships and commitments.

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To the donors who make Yale-NUS possible, 

On the morning of August 27, it was announced that, effective 2025, Yale-NUS College (YNC), in conjunction with the University Scholars Programme (USP), will be subsumed by a ‘New College’. Despite the use of the term ‘merger’, this move effectively constitutes YNC’s closure, based on the information that is currently available to us. We write to you to express our profound disappointment at this unilateral decision taken by the NUS leadership. We believe that you, the donors and supporters who made this college possible, should be aware of the circumstances behind this closure and what they mean for your investment in us. 

Essentially, we believe that this decision to ‘merge’ these two institutions is simply a front for what is an impending closure of Yale-NUS College. We believe that the resultant shift in the New College’s vision will be a significant departure from the promises that were made to you when you decided to support Yale-NUS as an institution. As such, we urge you to reconsider your ongoing support to the NUS administration, and push for greater accountability.

By any measurable metric, Yale-NUS College has been successful; our faculty are highly renowned, and our graduates have been extremely successful in a diverse set of career paths. Yale-NUS’s inaugural class alone has produced several alumni who are now enrolled in top PhD programmes globally, a Rhodes Scholar, and a Schwarzman Scholar. Others are now pursuing successful careers and making significant contributions in entrepreneurship, at blue chip companies, in the public sector, and at non-profit organisations in Singapore and around the world.

When Yale-NUS was established, we understand that many of you chose to invest your wealth in us because you believed in an educational vision embodied both in our classrooms and in our residential curriculum—a vision that centres its ethos around an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences education. Yale-NUS has always been presented to key stakeholders as an autonomous institution, one where students and faculty can engage with each other without fear of strong-armed top-down direction. This has fostered a close-knit community and a thriving marketplace of ideas. The Yale-NUS vision promised the active involvement of all students and faculty in both its curriculum and in residential life. This is the model of liberal arts that we understand many of you chose to believe in. With the onset of this ‘merger’, this vision will cease to exist in 2025. 

The New College is expected to begin taking in students in the next admissions cycle. Given the abruptness of the decision-making process, we lack confidence that NUS will be able to reproduce a successful interdisciplinary system within the short runway of a year. The success of Yale-NUS has required years of planning and dedication from many students, staff, other educational institutions (Yale), and the Singaporean government. We fear that the New College will not be able to guarantee the interdisciplinary educational experience ‘adapted from the best of both the USP and Yale-NUS foundations’ that NUS senior leadership promises. Furthermore, we believe that the manner in which both Yale-NUS and USP have been shut down is likely to have devastating consequences for existing students, faculty, and the education landscape in Singapore as a whole: 

  1. The top-down decision-making process reflects a continuation of a worrying practice by NUS leadership, with minimal regard for the impacts on and accountability to the stakeholders it is responsible for. 

Donors, faculty, students, staff, and key members of the NUS and Yale-NUS governing boards were not consulted in the decision-making process to close down YNC. To President Tan Tai Yong, the news of Yale-NUS’s closure came as a fait accompli. He revealed that he had not contributed any input in the process. This is a continuation of worrying practices by NUS leadership, in which they choose to impose top-down decisions on their primary stakeholders. The decision to close Yale-NUS College was made without regard for far-stretching implications on the careers and financial futures of students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike.

For students, incoming first-year students had already committed to Yale-NUS, matriculated, and completed their orientation programme before this ‘merger’ was announced. In addition, the announcement was made a day or two after student bills were due. By paying large sums in tuition to Yale-NUS and signing their Tuition Grant Scheme agreements, students, especially the newest cohort of 2025, were effectively trapped in a college that will shrink year by year, until it finally vanishes.

For faculty, this creates instability. For example, new faculty members were hired on tenure-track positions prior to the announcement of this decision and now face uncertainty in their professional futures. Many of these new faculty members have yet to set foot on campus but already have to grapple with the idea that their place of employment may no longer exist in a few years. For many—especially those in interdisciplinary majors—there is significant worry that their fields of expertise will not find the necessary logistical and meaningful academic support within the current framework of NUS faculties. Additionally, tenure standards vary significantly between large research-oriented universities like NUS and small liberal arts colleges like Yale-NUS. Hence, it is possible that a large number of the current Yale-NUS faculty will not be granted tenure at NUS, exacerbating the professional uncertainty they face. 

  1. The proposed New College will be fundamentally different from Yale-NUS College. It will not be a liberal arts and science college but an ‘honors college’, and therefore will not provide the same type of education that Yale-NUS provides.

Based on publicly available information and what was revealed at a town hall session held with alumni, it is clear that the New College will change fundamental aspects of the Yale-NUS model of education: 

  • Students will lose access to small discussion-based and professor-led seminars for courses in their major and minor. This is because New College is not a stand-alone liberal arts and sciences college with in-house faculty, but an ‘honors college’ which only offers a common curriculum and residential programmes. Future New College students will take their major/minor courses at home faculties in NUS such as the College of Humanities and Sciences, with less opportunity to cultivate personal student-professor ties and inclusive seminar discussions. Student-faculty ratios will also significantly increase, affecting other key aspects of learning such as academic advising and undergraduate research opportunities, key for graduate school-inclined students.
  • It removes our fully residential system. The ‘New College’ will not be a four-year residential college, which means a significant number of students will not be able to access the thriving residential curriculum that Yale-NUS currently boasts, for the full period of study. 
  • Class sizes for the common curriculum will increase in the ‘New College’. The change in student-teacher ratio will prevent students from learning in the kind of accessible, intimate setting that small class sizes foster. 
  • The ‘New College’ will not have the same diversity of students that YNC has. The international to local student ratio will drop drastically from the current 40:60. This limits interactions between a base of talented Singaporeans and a community of diverse minds. 
  • Singapore will lose a community of entrepreneurial faculty who were hired with emphasis on their pedagogy, focus on interdisciplinary learning, and desire to contribute to building a world-class liberal arts and sciences common curriculum in Singapore. 
  1. Many donors support a spirit of academic freedom that is essential to the liberal arts and sciences model. This has not been promised for the New College and is highly unlikely to be realised.

At YNC, this commitment is enshrined in our policies of academic freedom and non-discrimination, as well as our institutional autonomy, which ensure a vibrant, curious, and rigorous culture of learning on campus. However, it is not clear whether these policies will continue in the New College. NUS administration has explained that the new institution will be subsumed under full NUS governance, and will possess the same rules and structures as other current residential colleges. Moreover, at the YNC town hall, the NUS leadership only assured us that the autonomy and model of education our institution benefits from will be maintained for the remaining duration of its existence, but made no assurances that this autonomy will be carried over into the New College. 

  1. The closure of Yale-NUS will reflect poorly on Singaporean institutions of higher education and will be to the detriment of Singaporean society through ‘brain drain’. 

The unilateral, top-down closure of Yale-NUS College does not bode well for the future of liberal arts and sciences education in Singapore and in Asia, nor for the diversity of curricula that exist in the Singaporean higher education landscape. We fear that the sudden move to close Yale-NUS College indicates that Singaporean institutions of higher learning are at best careless and at worst hostile towards the principles and livelihoods of the international academic community. 

Moreover, the closing of Yale-NUS College heavily damages access to a true liberal arts and science education in Singapore, especially for students from lower-income backgrounds. As stated earlier, given that the New College will likely not be a true liberal arts experience, local students who wish to pursue this type of education will have to look overseas, at much higher costs, thus reducing accessibility to education.  Similarly, the poor treatment of faculty, whose tenure progressions and jobs are now at the mercy of a new institution, disincentivises renowned international scholars and professors from coming to teach in Singaporean institutions. This contributes to a ‘brain drain’ where both talented Singaporeans and internationals no longer view Singapore as an attractive destination in which to study or teach. This loss of talent is of great detriment to Singapore as a whole.

The generous donations you provide to Yale-NUS have been absolutely crucial to our learning and the college’s development. Your generosity has helped us build a conscientious, civilly engaged community of global citizens. You have been integral stakeholders to this community and yet, you were not consulted by NUS leadership in this decision. We believe you deserve transparency and accountability in how your gift is used. 

In light of this, we request that you approach NUS leadership and ask that they reconsider this closure to preserve the future of liberal arts and science education in Singapore and, more broadly, Asia. Even if the decision itself cannot be changed, we hope that this letter and your support compels the NUS administration to, firstly, be more transparent about the decision-making process that went into their plans to shut down our institution and, secondly, provide any ‘New College’ the same protections, autonomy and liberal arts curriculum that Yale-NUS is able to enjoy. In the absence of such changes, we humbly ask you to consider supporting other organisations that are more committed to their own core values of respect for stakeholders, integrity to uphold the highest ethical standards, as an institution founded for the community by the community.

In community, 

A Group of Yale-NUS Students and Alumni of Yale-NUS College

For further information on the harmful implications of this decision on higher education in Yale-NUS and beyond, please read the attached petition. This petition has been formulated by students across six faculties in NUS, and enjoys widespread support. We hope we can count you among those who share its sentiments. 

Link to the petition: https://www.change.org/NOMORETOPDOWN 

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The views and stances expressed in the open letter are the authors’ own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com.

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