Story | Benjamin Goh (he/him), Guest Writer
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
What is it that leaders do? And how do leaders do it?
I have been reflecting upon these two questions since the announcement of the closure of Yale-NUS College on August 27, 2021. In the extensive media coverage since then, we have seen different information, some of which contradict each other, from Yale, Singapore’s Ministry of Education, and the National University of Singapore (NUS). We have seen multiple op-eds about what this closure means for Singapore, for Asia, and for the world.
However, in this piece, I seek to address the less examined brand of leadership employed in the management of this closure. Since the town hall that Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS, held with Yale-NUS students on September 28, 2021, I have gained a better understanding of how NUS leadership conceptualizes their leadership praxis: theirs is a leadership that seeks to inform rather than consult.
When Tan stated that he consulted stakeholders, he actually meant that he informed them. If Tan wishes to debate the semantics of whether the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is a merger or not, despite the on-the-ground perception that it is a merger, then we can and should debate the semantics of consulting versus informing. We can and we should also debate on when this consulting happens, because there is a meaningful difference in whether consulting happens before or after the decision is made. In leadership, how individuals perceive your actions is just as, if not more, important than any actual statements.
This piece comprises three sections. Section One defines the differences between consulting and informing. Section Two explains why NUS’s leadership style, as demonstrated in their management of the closure of Yale-NUS and the University Scholars Programme (USP), has not been a consultative one. Section Three argues that NUS’s leadership style will be detrimental to the experiences students have and the trust stakeholders have in NUS.
NUS leadership has much to do to repair the trust deficit with their stakeholders before they can even begin the long and arduous task of winning over students.
1. Two leadership styles: consulting and informing
There are two key differences between a leadership style that consults and one that informs: consulting creates space for agency and innovation, while informing does not.
Consulting aims to create consensus, and if not consensus, then a stake in the development of the matter. It is not strictly “bottom-up” in that it can be initiated from the top, but it is certainly people-oriented.
In contrast, informing creates no space for agency nor innovation. It is instead aimed at information provision—in essence, telling people that a decision will happen and that it has already been made. It is thus not aimed at giving stakeholders a stake in the matter, because there is no point in further discussion, given that the decision has already been made.
Critically, informing can only be “top-down” because individuals from the bottom up cannot affect decisions in this manner. It is thus oriented towards efficiency rather than people. Informing entails neither understanding the views of the people impacted nor understanding their concerns and anxieties. It is not intended to understand their aspirations and hopes. Informing affords no space for co-creation.
To be fair, different circumstances call for different forms of leadership: the metric I use for deciding which circumstances calls for a leadership style that focuses on informing is in which the outcome is one of life or death. If the final product is not one that creates a life-or-death situation, then there is time to consult. There is time to understand the perspectives of the stakeholders.
This is, I believe, the reason why Tan was unable to articulate why the students of Yale-NUS, and indeed elsewhere in NUS, are upset with this and other such top-down decisions. Empathy is and should always be an integral part of leadership. We are ready for a brand of consultative leadership where leaders and those they lead work together to co-create a brighter future for their community.
2. Why consultative leadership?
What do the metrics of agency and consulting mean for higher education and our understanding of leadership? Agency is created when stakeholders are given the ability to vocalize their ideas, which are valuable to the creation of the final product. It means that people are given the capacity to contribute to the decision-making process. This is important because agency creates a sense of ownership, of wanting the project to succeed.
One might argue that the Yale-NUS “experiment” succeeded precisely because it demonstrated the benefits of affording agency. It is because the founders, faculty, students, staff, and parents were able to exercise agency, that the college is what it is today—a community of learning, in Asia, for the world. Ownership creates a sense of responsibility, not just to the institution, but to the community and each other.
As Robin Zheng, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, eloquently elucidated in a webinar on liberal education in Singapore, students in a Yale-NUS classroom speak and contribute to class discussion because they are accountable to each other for their learning. This is how we create productive spaces for conversation.
By endowing each student with a sense of ownership, we are encouraged to take pride in what we do. Thus we strive to do better for each other.
Conversely, leadership that merely seeks to inform creates no space for ownership; there is no reason why anyone should seek to own something that could be destroyed without any notice. There is no reason why anyone would pour their heart into a project if they expect to experience intense grief and heartbreak when it ends without their input. This is a world where there is little to no pride in the institution’s achievements. This is a world that diminishes community learning. Why would students fill in surveys or participate in curriculum reviews if they don’t feel a sense of ownership over the matter? Not creating space for agency reduces ownership and creates a worse outcome for the NUS community.
More than just agency and ownership, consulting creates space for innovation. We are all individuals with different lived academic experiences. Each of us brings something different to the table. This creates the potential to innovate something new and different, which could add value to the experience.
For example, if my suitemates and I were consulted as to what we thought the best part of the Yale-NUS experience is, we would not have said the Common Curriculum. I remember long anxious nights over Scientific Inquiry and the heavy reading load of Modern Social Thought.
We would have pointed to our informal curriculum, such as the innovations in the residential curriculum that ensure that students are educated in areas such as intercultural engagement. We would have pointed to our commitment to diversability, such as in educating students about the various learning accommodations that they could seek during Orientation or RCA group sessions through the year. We would have pointed to distinctive programs like Diversity Week and Mental Health Week. We would have pointed to innovations such as Assistant Dean Notes.
At the time of writing, the only thing of value NUS leadership sees in Yale-NUS is its formal curriculum. Yet if we had been consulted, we could have innovated ways of integrating aspects of our informal curriculum into the formal one.
For example, we could have suggested “brave space” guidelines, like the one I designed with faculty in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), into the formal curriculum. These guidelines, such as allowing students to take a time-out if they feel overwhelmed by class materials, or a commitment to critically examining ideas without engaging in personal attacks, are important to create spaces for students and faculty to feel safe enough to discuss topics that could be controversial. Without these guidelines, students may very well not participate in class discussions because they may feel attacked or too overwhelmed to do so.
“Brave spaces” create space for conversation in the classroom, and create space for students to feel safe to discuss even controversial topics. We could have integrated learning accommodations for students like myself who have a hearing condition. We could have discussed how to integrate mental health support into the syllabus so that students know who to turn to if they require support. Despite having taken seven NUS classes across three departments at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I have never seen an NUS syllabus that notes the importance of mental health and the support one could get for it.
These things seem marginal to most people, but it matters to the university environment that is created. If students do not feel safe to speak up in class, they will not, and professors will need to think harder about how to get students to contribute to discussions, often by offering crass incentives like class participation points that invite superficial responses that do not go into the heart of the matter.
Learning accommodations help not just those who require the accommodation but those who don’t as well. Closed captioning, for instance, benefits visual learners. Using a microphone in large classrooms benefits auditory learners. And knowing who to turn to for support matters in life-and-death situations. Knowing that your professors prioritize your mental health allows you to trust that professors care for you, rather than merely being research-generating machines.
These are all innovations that we could have brought to the table to benefit the NUS community. Innovation is key insofar as we want to progress beyond one static position. However, without a sense of ownership and without discussion, innovation cannot take place. The outcome, then, is miserable for all stakeholders. The opportunities to improve are limited, and the institution’s ability to grow for the better is hampered.
In response to claims that he did not consult the relevant parties sufficiently, Tan noted that he had in fact consulted “every faculty in each of the departments at FOS and FASS” about CHS. Apart from this being empirically untrue, speaking from the experience of having worked with faculty members who had little knowledge about CHS and had to redo their plans for a module despite having planned the module from as early as March 2021, the timing of this consultation matters too.
If one consults after the decision has been made, is there really space for agency and innovation? One might ask: if you get to contribute to these student committees, is that not agency? But is it really agency and ownership if the boundaries of these committees have already been drawn? By virtue of the decision having already been made, even if there is space for autonomy and innovation, the space is limited by design.
This strategy entraps people within predefined boundaries, with little to no space to conceptualize something different. It is not enough to attempt to win over stakeholders after the decision has been made. It is equally, if not more, important that winning over stakeholders happens even before the decision has been made. Would it not be a more prudent use of resources to win over students from the start, and not only after the fact when opinions have already been made?
This is at the heart of the #NoMoreTopDown petition which was dismissed because it reported what people on the ground feel about CHS, as opposed to what it was claimed to be by the administration. In fact, I would argue that the reason why students in FASS believe that CHS is a merger and not a “virtual college”—a term never used in press releases, the CHS undergraduate admission brochure, or viewbook—is because they were informed of the decision and were not consulted. If students had been consulted, perhaps they would better understand what NUS leadership sought to achieve with CHS.
Yet, because they were informed of a new common curriculum combining FASS and FOS subjects—one that took effect a year later and is still in the midst of being worked out—it appears as a merger to them, and rightly so. NUS may not intend for it to be a merger, but if it looks like a merger, sounds like a merger, and is presented as a merger, it is a merger.
Consulting after the fact is no different from not consulting at all, as the boundaries have already been drawn. If we are serious about interdisciplinary learning that seeks to go beyond the boundaries of formal disciplines, then we should be conscious of the boundaries we are drawing.
To be clear, I am not positing that we should accept every single thing that is proposed in consultations. This is simply impossible. Instead, I am arguing that it matters that people are at least given a chance to speak on the subject for two reasons.
Firstly, it creates space for agency and a sense of ownership. Even if people do not agree with the final outcome, they take pride in the fact that they were consulted and can come to terms with it. There is thus some incentive to accept the new system. Comparatively, absent consultation, there is no reason to feel a sense of ownership.
Secondly, it creates space for innovation. It is through discussion that people innovate new ideas that could be better for the community. In the absence of consultation, individuals are disincentivized from engagement and innovation.
These two reasons do not require all opinions to be accepted. It merely requires that individuals are empowered to speak up and to contribute. Apathy exists when individuals have no incentive to care. Apathy hence exists when leaders only seek to inform, and not consult, on matters that do not result in life or death.
3. Current leadership style at NUS is detrimental to student experiences
The town hall with Yale-NUS students revealed that the NUS School of Computing and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) will also come under this new curriculum structure, with the expectation that students would pursue a double major. I leave the evaluation of the rightness of this decision to the educational experts. In effect, NUS leadership is making the decision to combine the educational experiences of those who are not pursuing a professional degree and those who are into a common experience, despite the ostensibly different components of each degree. Music students, for instance, would require more time to engage in composition and rehearsals than the average FASS or Yale-NUS student.
What is of importance is that this is the first time this has been confirmed. While potentially beneficial, I am left to wonder how Computing students who regularly complain on Reddit about the difficulties of computing modules, and YST students who have to juggle a wide range of modules and performance rehearsals, feel about this? How would this add to their academic load and stress? Mental health matters and is important, said Tan in the recent town hall with students—yet this decision seems to disregard the potential stresses it would cause.
We were told that students only see things from one perspective. Putting aside the condescending language, is this perspective not important? What is the point of designing a top-notch curriculum if students are too stressed to learn from it? Learning is not merely receiving knowledge, but is also about reflecting on that knowledge and using it to do more. When students have more courses to do, with the workload remaining the same for their other classes, one wonders where students would find the time to learn?
This is not to say we should only hear from students. We should hear from a diversity of voices, including students, because it is only when we hear from multiple perspectives that we have a fuller picture of the implications and impacts of our policies. Such a style of leadership diminishes the student experience insofar as students are unable to advocate for themselves.
More than diminishing the experience of students, however, such a style of leadership engenders a spirit of distrust in the institution of NUS. If decisions can be made behind the scenes with little consultation, what grounds do students have to trust that NUS would live up to its promises? What grounds do students have to trust that their well being would be cared for? A style of leadership that only informs breeds a spirit of distrust because the perennial question would be: who watches the watchmen? Trust is built over time but squandered overnight. If we want to create ownership and innovation, we must have trust in the institution—otherwise, what would the incentive be to engage in such actions?
For the administration to even begin to win over the hearts and minds of students, students must first trust the university administration. Even before NUS can try to convince students of the benefits of the closures, they must first convince students that NUS has their best interests at heart. This will take time—valuable time that could have been used to improve the curriculum and student life experience. Time that could have been saved had NUS chosen to consult with students before the decision was made.
In the town hall, Tan articulated that the trade-off in this decision was between closing Yale-NUS now, and a diminished Yale-NUS experience and its eventual demise anyway because the gap in funding could not be plugged. Hence, he argues, closing two distinctive and excellent programs is the only solution that could be undertaken. Putting aside the lack of structural analysis as to why the gap in funding could not be plugged even when asked by students, and the fact that Tan conceded that Yale was willing to assist with fundraising, I would like to highlight a different set of trade-offs—a set that I opine is not worth trading off.
First, NUS is trading off a sense of ownership. NUS is trading off the pride students would have in building a community of learning in NUS, one that everyone could be proud of, for mere efficiency in decision-making.
Second, NUS is trading off potential innovation that could make the final product significantly better. How can we know what “good” is when only one person or planning committee determines it? When more people share their idea of how we can do better, it is the community and the institution that benefit.
Third, NUS is trading off the trust of its stakeholders. For a program to be successful, it is not enough to say that it will be successful. Stakeholders have to be persuaded that it will be successful, and persuasion is not an equation that is logical and rational.
Indeed, humans are not wholly rationally-driven creatures. We can sometimes be influenced by beliefs that are seemingly illogical and irrational. Beliefs such as not believing that the institution has the best interest of the stakeholders at heart.
Actions say more than words, and it is not enough for institutions and leaders to say “trust us.” They must demonstrate through actions that they are worth trusting. They must put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise, they will lose trust. These three goods—ownership, innovation, and trust— seem objectively more important to retain. The style of leadership undertaken has implications beyond just one community—it affects the institution as well.
There is an African adage that goes along the lines of: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” On the road ahead, we need to ask ourselves: what do we value more? Speed? Or distance? We also need to ask ourselves: what is on that road ahead? Where is our final intended destination? What are our aspirations for the institution? How can we turn these aspirations into reality?
In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, changing, and ambiguous, leaders do better when they consult, listen to, and consider a diversity of perspectives, not just those they want to listen to. Professor Tommy Koh spoke of “loving critics” and I think that’s what we, the students resisting the closure of Yale-NUS and USP in our own ways, are. We resist because we love our community, and we want NUS to do better than it is doing currently. The day we stop our resistance is the day we stop loving this institution. That, I think, will be the day that NUS has truly failed.
Tan spoke about winning over students on his vision. Intellectually, I could be persuaded to believe in his vision, but I have minimal faith in his leadership. If Tan could ignore consultation on an issue like this, I am left to fear what other major decisions Tan, or indeed other leaders in NUS, could make without consulting their stakeholders. There is no incentive for me, or any other student, to want to make New College a success when it could be closed overnight.
It is not enough to win students over. It is more important to demonstrate leadership by example and not by authority. That is how you win hearts and minds. That is how you build trust and ownership, and engender an environment where students are community builders.
Ultimately, it is not just where we go that matters. It is also how we get there.