Saturday, October 23, 2021

How NUS Broke Our Trust

Story | Avery (she/her), Guest Writer 
Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)

What is Yale-NUS College?

It is so many things—a school, a community, a safe place—but above all, it is a promise. It is a promise to faculty to reshape what higher education in Singapore could look like, and it is a promise to students that they could freely realize their dreams. We gathered here from around the world trusting NUS to honor this promise, only for it to be recklessly broken barely three weeks into its fulfillment. The trust between the Yale-NUS community and its administrators is irrevocably broken as a result.

The initial incorporation of Yale-NUS within NUS entrusts the university to support the college and to make decisions in its best interest. The dissolution is, by its very definition, an existential question for the college. But as new information gradually emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that the NUS bureaucracy has failed to exercise a semblance of careful consideration as it proceeded with the merger within a few short months. As others have pointed out in startling detail, fundamental differences exist aplenty between just about every aspect of the Yale-NUS and USP machinery that must be reconciled within one short year. 

Yet, if any feasibility studies or preliminary investigations have been done, we haven’t heard of them. The merits of a “strategic initiative” on this scale deserve careful deliberation involving as many perspectives as possible, yet—ironically for an initiative to establish a “liberal arts college”—investigations reveal that even senior administrators were uninvolved in the decision making. Most of all, the decision to obliterate an entire community was made without even a nod to the existential stakes we hold in this issue, or a warning to help us prepare for what was to come. The suspicion only grows that the administration rushed into this destruction in an astonishingly rash fever dream, without stopping for a second to remember its responsibilities or question its own wisdom.

The repercussions of this irresponsibility are a total upheaval of faculty’s and student’s academic and personal futures that NUS once promised us. Faculty could at least expect their hard work building the school to be respected, but instead found their brainchild sent to the slaughter overnight, their ambition destroyed and employment uncertain. Some had spent their past year reviewing the Common Curriculum and making extensive modifications—only to be notified on the eve of its completion that their work wouldn’t be needed anymore. NUS has claimed that no one will be made redundant, but even if faculty are able to secure an equivalent position in the wider NUS, things are not the same. The new-movers will find themselves bluntly transplanted into a large research university where the job scope and performance assessments are drastically different from the teaching-focused liberal arts college they signed up for. 

Students, meanwhile, are given a caricature of an assurance, a constant refrain that Yale-NUS would remain “business as usual” until 2025. I haven’t seen anyone fully buying into that claim, perhaps because of its obvious implausibility. The fact of the matter is that things change when you know the school will disappear in four years, as faculty leave for greener pastures and student societies wither without new blood and the dynamism of junior students ceases to exist, and the creeping despair that any attachment to this place that you allow yourself will only mean worse pain when it finally disappears. 

The NUS administration has failed in its responsibility to Yale-NUS as an institution and to individuals within, yet only offers unsubstantiated assurances amid the universal sense of betrayal. How will the school uphold diversity? They “hope.” Will faculty be persuaded to remain, and in sufficient numbers? They have “a sensing.” Will the New College commit to critical discourse in the same spirit as Yale-NUS and USP? Maybe. 

But you know, even that could be okay. Details take time to emerge for a plan as disruptive as this, but all might still be fine if those at the helm are trustworthy and responsible and are known to have the students’ best interests at heart. But the people put in charge are the same people who on live broadcast broke our trust that a decision about our future would be carefully made, that we would have a say in what would profoundly affect our lives, and most of all, the ultimate promise that the school we so loved would continue to exist. Faced against this, all guarantees are useless—flimsy bandaids slapped on an exsanguinating wound. 

This begs the question: If they can do this now, what else can they do in the future? Another merger of the College of Humanities and Sciences, this time with the Business School so “everyone can gain an entrepreneurial spirit”? Devise a common curriculum for the Faculty of Law focusing extensively on computing for an industry set to rely on artificial intelligence? If NUS encounters financial trouble, will it sell off UTown itself to be redeveloped as a condominium complex “rich in educational heritage”? None of these are imaginable. But that was precisely what the dissolution of Yale-NUS used to be—a joke worthy of The Mocktant until it suddenly came true. The capricious, erratic decision-making—that has been proven endemic, no less—will plague future students, faculty, and collaboration partners with all sorts of such questions, dangerously damaging the credibility of a university trying to become the best in Asia.

So where does this leave us? I don’t know what we should do, faced with a behemoth institution with extensive power it can no longer be trusted to wield. But I know what we can do: speak out, question, and hold the administration to account even as it refuses to be. It may well change nothing, but it for sure won’t if we don’t try.

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