All the Changes from Aug. 20’s Town Hall and What They Mean for You
story | Amanda Leong, Staff Editor
photo | Yip Jia Qi, Staff Editor and Ruchel Phua, Contributing Photographer
On Aug. 20, 8 pm, the first Town Hall of the academic year was held. This was the first Town Hall held after the series of tense events that happened in Yale-NUS College before summer. On March 9, several Yale-NUS College students staged a sit-in protest at the Elm College gateway. The protest was held to express frustrations over a range of issues, such as the use of public spaces, the changes to the Writers’ Centre, mental health policies and sexual misconduct on campus, which these students felt stemmed from the lack of accountability and transparency from the college administration. A scheduled town hall was pushed forward to March 14, drawing hundreds of students, faculty and alumni in contrast to the usual audience size of around 50. With the start of this new year, how will the administration, the Student Government and the community follow up on these discussions?
Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) and Interim Dean of Students Joanne Roberts described the numerous changes that occurred in the Dean of Students Office over the summer. She described the summer as “a period of transition” for the Dean of Students office, with the departure of many key members and structural changes. Later, Averyn Thng ’21 and Markus Le Roux ’19 went over the results of the Campus Sexual Climate Survey and its implications.
The inadequacy of mental health resources at Yale-NUS has been an old, pressing issue with student complaints of the Counselling Centre being understaffed, having a high turnover rate and long waiting times. This has been compounded by the stigmatization of mental health and normalised high stress levels in Yale-NUS. In May, former Head of Counselling Ho Shee Wai left Yale-NUS College, leaving a vacuum.
What has been done?
In the beginning of the academic year 2017/2018, the Yale-NUS College Wellness Centre was restructured into two entities, the “Wellness Initiatives” and the “Counselling Centre.” Services like athletics and health now fall under “Wellness Initiatives” while the counselling team has been given an independent space in the form of the “Counselling Centre.” In the past, all of these services were lumped under the “Wellness Centre.”
This was done to improve mental health support and combat notions that counselling was not emphasized enough within Yale-NUS. However, the aforementioned issues persisted.
What is being done?
Goh Zhengqin was introduced as the new Head of Counselling. There are also many additions to the Counselling team, including clinical psychologist Joanna Ashley Tan, interns Jennifer Chan and Khairiya Binte Kassim, and an onsite psychiatrist Dr. Clarice Hong.
What does this mean?
Optimistically, this means more mental health resources for our increased student population.
- Natalie Ang, the new Manager for Wellness, was introduced.
- Joanna Lee, who was previously a Dean’s Fellow, will now be the Assistant Manager for Residential Education. She will be working with Andrew McGeehan, Acting Associate Director, Residential Education on Housing and Logistics, and Sexual Misconduct and Survival programmes.
- The change in title from Athletics to the Department of Athletics & Recreation is designed to reflect a new focus on fitness, active living and wellness.
- Ms. Roberts stated that there are currently no plans to hire a nurse as there are other priorities and the college does not have the budgetary resources to hold a nurse.
Sexual Climate and Sexual Misconduct
What has been done?
The first Campus Sexual Climate Survey was conducted in April to collect data on residential living concerns about sexual misconduct and support for students, as well as the rates of sexual misconduct within the campus.
Key results (presented by Thng and Le Roux):
- 38% of people who completed the survey experienced some form of sexual misconduct, among which a significant number of instances were with a Yale-NUS aggressor.
- 44% of respondents indicated they knew someone who has experienced sexual misconduct.
- Most sexual misconduct cases occurred in the first year for every new class, with a drop-off in incident rates between the first and second year.
- 52% of respondents believed that if they reported sexual conduct they would receive retaliation from the person they reported or from friends of the person they reported.
- The most likely source of support were close friends and the least likely resources were those on campus such as Counselling or faculty.
What is being done?
- Mr. McGeehan will now be taking over Sexual Health and Wellness.
- The policy has been updated so that it is easier to understand and has reduced timelines. Specifically, the initial report will go to Mr. McGeehan instead of the Dean of Students Office to reduce the barrier of entry. There will be an online platform to submit sexual misconduct reports so there is an option for it not to be done face-to-face.
- There is a new microsite for Sexual Misconduct which has been organized for easier access of information.
- Kingfishers for Consent, Yale-NUS’ Sexual Wellness Peer Educators, will be active this year. Comprising selected Yale-NUS students, they will plan workshops on sexual wellness, run the annual Sexual Wellness Week and outreach to the community alongside other duties.
What does this mean?
These policies and structural changes could make it easier for survivors to report instances of sexual misconduct, hopefully leading to a culture of greater sexual wellness in Yale-NUS.
Public Spaces and Freedom of Speech
One of the central tenets of a liberal arts education is the freedom of expression. However, this principle is complicated by Yale-NUS’ local context, that is, Singapore’s strict laws on freedom of expression. For critic Jim Sleeper, this contradiction is too glaring.
The ambiguity of the limits of our freedom of expression was argued to have allowed Yale-NUS to carve out its own space; at the same time, this ambiguity may have been terrifying exactly because students do not know what these limits are, if they exist.
The choice between the two approaches of being either thick-skinned or cautious while navigating this boundary has resulted in tensions between students and the administration, with some students arguing that the administration has been heavy-handed in invocating Singapore’s laws.
- October 2014: Matthew Ware ’18’s social experiment on the extent of academic freedom allayed the community’s concerns of infringement upon their freedom of speech as what was thought to be censorship turned out to be a case of miscommunication.
- February 2017: The Events Approval Committee was enacted. This committee disallowed any event that required licenses or permits under the Public Entertainments and Meeting Acts or a permit under the Public Order Act.
- October 2017: Posters publicizing the event “Occupy: The Politics of Youth and Space” were removed. According to President of Yale-NUS College Tan Tai Yong, a publicity stunt involving the use of loudhailers meant to draw attention to the display crossed a line as it was too jarring and was held in a semi-public area.
- February 2018: The Public Spaces Taskforce led by Associate Professor Steven Green and consisting of a mix of faculty and students was launched. It sought to address the issues of the use of public spaces and academic freedom in a more consultative way.
What is being done now?
To queries from Mia Raghavan ’21 and Mehul Banka ’19 regarding the discussion on freedom of expression and public spaces in Yale-NUS, Ms. Roberts replied that Yale-NUS has hired a lawyer external to the National University of Singapore who will be consulted to help navigate the ambiguous and complicated boundary between Yale-NUS’ academic freedom and Singapore’s law on freedom of expression. A report will be released and there will be another public forum where students’ opinions will be gathered.
Starting this semester, Town Halls will be held monthly by the Student Government. The next Town Hall is scheduled to be held on Oct. 8.