Saturday, October 23, 2021

New Beginnings, Same Old NUS Mistakes

Story | Shaharaj Ahmed (he/they), Guest Writer
Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)

The idea of the New College is one many of us can get behind. For me, the underlying motivation seems to be to expand on the Yale-NUS College education model for a larger population of 2,000. 

While the announcement on August 27 showed signs of other motivations, I do not seek to discuss those here. I seek instead to say that the NUS Administration (NUS) has come up with an infeasible plan for a college—that its decision is misguided and disconnected from material constraints such as Yale-NUS classroom sizes, a lack of residential spaces, and an awaiting administrative hullabaloo. I am sure NUS is aware of these issues, yet it has seemed to adopt a “kick the can down the road” approach by asking us to direct questions toward the yet-to-be-formed New College committees.

NUS has signaled that the New College will be built on Yale-NUS’s Common Curriculum (CC). I welcome this approach. Ask any Yale-NUS student and, while they may complain about Scientific Inquiry, they will agree that it nurtures academic rigor and intellectual growth. 

However, NUS misses the point of the CC in two ways. First, its plans to expand our 18-person maximum class size to  25 people  for New College’s CC classes is misguided because Yale-NUS’s classrooms were designed for 18 people. Out of our 23 classrooms, there are only three that can accommodate that many people, besides the three lecture theaters which are not ideal for CC classes. Let us also not forget COVID-19, which has forced our College to shift classes to these select locations at odd hours and during the weekend. If NUS plans to demolish other facilities in our College to make way for safe distancing-compliant 25-person classrooms just as it did to Yale-NUS College for the New College, so be it.

Second, speaking in front of 18 people is one thing, but public speaking in front of 25 people is another matter. I remember vividly from my first CC classes the anxiety and performance issues that come with such large audiences. Our education model is already a compromise between intellectual debate that comes when people are not afraid to speak and packing in as many people as possible. Through expanding it, the New College’s CC will lose the intellectual rigor that emerges due to the intimacy of our relatively smaller class sizes. To me, it doesn’t seem that NUS understands the trade-offs in collective anxiety and intellectual rigor that come with larger groups. 

Yale-NUS has spent many years training its professors to recognize these fears and balance such trade-offs via the Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). I fear that we will lose Yale-NUS’s discoveries in finding the optimal balance between intellectual pursuit, mental well-being, and economizing students per class. If the New College’s CC is its biggest selling point, NUS has stunted its success from Year 0 by ignoring what we’ve done so far.

Another aspect of Yale-NUS that NUS doesn’t seem to understand is our residential life. Living together is the complement to our liberal arts education as it allows for the praxis of knowledge. Yale-NUS students are not Yale-NUS students because of what is taught to us, but because we argue about it, apply it, and embody it, wherever and whenever.

The most obvious flaw in the plan is that USP and Yale-NUS College combined have 1,600 beds for a planned 2,000 undergraduates at any one time. Thus, residential life will be designed such that a significant proportion will be unable to get the four-year on-campus experience. This discussion is not about the construction of a residential community and spirit, but about the furthering of academic immersion.

The second, more subtle, point is that as NUS plans to merge Yale-NUS College and USP together, it is obvious that the undergraduate community will need to be split across each college’s residence. This spatial disjunction will mean that students will not live, play, and study under the same roof by design. They will find it difficult to establish a common culture and shared language. Similarly, they will find it hard to continue the intellectual immersion of the CC when students need to traverse the physical distance back and forth between Yale-NUS and USP. Just as it is difficult for firms to build a working culture through Zoom and not in the physical workplace, it will be challenging for New College people to build a shared rigorous intellectual mindset because NUS has ignored the physical distance and barriers between Yale-NUS and USP.

Lastly, there will be administrative turmoil. Our College’s administration has manifested in many forms, each finely tuned to student and faculty needs. Think the Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE) being aware of the difficulties of marketing a liberal arts degree and meeting with employers day in and day out to advocate for our potential, the CTL initiating focus groups and research projects to understand inclusivity and diversity needs, or Wellness or the Dining Experience Team or Residential Housing or any other Yale-NUS admin department. Each one has evolved to understand us. 

I am not making the argument that because our departments are unique, they shouldn’t be closed. I am making the argument that the ideological differences between departments in Yale-NUS and USP about how best to serve students, as well as the many hardships that come in coordinating due to Yale-NUS and USP’s physical segregation, will make it hard for New College’s admin to provide an optimal experience for the New College students. I agree, these will be smoothed over with time. But fundamental ideological differences will continue to present a logistical challenge to New College’s support systems as USP and Yale-NUS operations supposedly “merge.” I foresee that one may have to give way to the other, and I do not like the thought of the Yale-NUS admin losing the results of hard won experience.

Yale-NUS College has been a dream ten years in the making. It began in 2011, with two years of planning by some of the most daring and brightest academic entrepreneurs for 250 students. NUS is now planning to do the same in four months with twice the student intake of Yale-NUS. If you ask me, NUS’s plan reeks of intellectual hubris, bureaucratic misunderstanding of what makes us us, and absolutely reeks of the impulsive decision of a spoiled child. It is for all these reasons that I am against the closure of Yale-NUS College and the formation of New College. If NUS were to solve these issues first, I would support the plan to expand Yale-NUS.

Lastly, regardless of whether the New College succeeds or not, what is certain is that if it is implemented, Yale-NUS will cease to exist. What must not be lost is all that we have built, be it in our academic life, our residential component, or our administration, our efforts must be preserved into our new, and (supposedly shared) normal.

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The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: yncoctant@gmail.com

1 COMMENT

  1. Yale-NUS has an endowment of about half a BILLION dollars, which is more than half a million dollars in endowment per student. This is WAY HIGHER than the NUS endowment per student.

    How much of the merger decision is motivated by this money?

    It seems like a bait-and-switch for donors (both local + overseas), many of whom supports having a liberal arts education in an authoritarian state like Singapore.

    Perhaps, we should petition for Yale-NUS to return the endowment!

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