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story | Harrison Linder, Managing Editor
photo | Yale-NUS College
Yale-NUS College students and governing board members Marvin Chun, Dean of Yale College, and Catharine Bond Hill, Managing Director of Ithaka S+R, USA discussed concerns regarding the Student Effort Contribution (SEC) and the dining hall during the closed-door dialogue session held on March 19.
The Yale-NUS governing board congregates on the Yale-NUS campus twice every year; once in August before the start of the Fall semester and once in March. This is the second year that the closed-door dialogue session has taken place. Last March, the closed-door meeting discussed the state of public spaces on campus.
The SEC and the state of dining on campus have both attracted controversy this semester. The SEC has been criticized by many students on campus and was condemned by the Student Senate for “disadvantaging already underprivileged students.” Sodexo, Yale-NUS’ dining hall provider, has been accused by students of causing sickness, mislabelling dishes as vegan or vegetarian, and more. Both the SEC and the dining hall situation have been the subject of intense discussion during town halls this semester.
The majority of the dialogue session was spent discussing the SEC. In response to student questions about whether or not the SEC amount could be lowered or if the SEC could be removed entirely, both governing board members said that there are tradeoffs made when determining Yale-NUS’ budget and financial aid package. Mr. Chun said, “there are tradeoffs that any school, not just Yale-NUS College, is trying to maximize. [SEC] amounts are determined by what different schools calculate to be what students can earn without being working time being burdensome.”
Students at both Yale-NUS and Yale University have suggested that administrators are making suboptimal choices when presented with said tradeoffs. During the closed-door dialogue session. Wong Cai Jie ’21 said, “The SEC expresses a heavy financial burden for many students. Can we justify this policy given that a lot of trips and other luxuries are sponsored by school?” According to the Yale Daily News, at a Students Unite Now town hall regarding the Yale Student Income Contribution (as it is known colloquially), Yale student Abeyaz Amir ’22 said, “I don’t need a guacamole bar at Silliman College for dinner. I don’t need an ice sculpture. I need Yale to pay for my books!”
In response to concerns brought by students that fulfilling the SEC is burdensome, Ms. Hill said that employment on campus can be a valuable extracurricular activity in itself and that there should be meaningful employment opportunities on campus through which students can fulfill the SEC. She also indicated that the SEC is not a very significant sum when considering the average lifetime earnings that Yale-NUS students will likely have and that those who do not want to work should be encouraged to take a loan.
Multiple students brought up the problem of poor communication between the administration and those on the SEC. Mr. Chun said, “An institution can’t see who’s struggling and if a student doesn’t really come forth, you know, what can the institution do to draw that student in because we can’t help someone if we don’t know who to help. A blanket solution of getting rid of Student Effort Contribution, that’s not a practical solution.”
Pang Wei Han ’19 said that students find most staff members unapproachable with regards to issues like finances, and asked what can be done to train staff to be more approachable with regards to issues like the SEC. Mr. Chun said that he would bring the possibility of staff training up to other members of the governing board.
The concern of there being not enough on-campus employment opportunities was brought up by multiple students. While the Yale-NUS senior administration has claimed that there is an excess of jobs available on campus, students have suggested that these jobs are beyond the skill set of most students. Swarnima Sircar ’19 said, “The reason there are ample jobs is that people do not necessarily have the skills to do them. So you have positions like web developer but we are liberal arts students.”
The governing board members suggested that there should be a detailed review of jobs on campus to ensure that there are sufficient positions to meet the needs of those on the SEC. They also suggested that those on the SEC should be given priority for on-campus jobs going forward.
Students brought up the possibility of an “opt-out” option to the governing board members. Ms. Hill said, “I’ve been associated with two residential liberal arts colleges and and I think the philosophy is that you come to the school community to live together and eat together as part of the learning experience. That is how this school is, and if it’s not what you want then this maybe isn’t the right match for you.”
Students cited various issues that led them to call for an opt-out option in the first place, including lack of options for those with dietary restraints such as vegans, mislabeling of food by Sodexo staff, and lack of responsiveness from Sodexo when suggestions were brought to them. Both governing board members said that these issues should be fairly easy for Sodexo to fix, and that Sodexo should be held accountable.
Another issue brought up by both conversations is the lack of transparency in Yale-NUS’ annual budget. While both Yale and the National University of Singapore publicly publish reports describing yearly budget and sources of income, Yale-NUS publishes no such report. The governing board members expressed the belief that Yale-NUS’ budget should be more transparent.
After the meeting, some students expressed dissatisfaction with the responses they got from governing board members. Adam Lau ’19 said, “To me, it felt like the two governing board members knew many details regarding the SEC as well as the policies and contracts we have with Sodexo, but knew nothing about how these things affect students in their everyday life.”
Student government Director of Diversity and Inclusion and moderator of the dialogue Kristian-Marc James Paul ’19 said, “As the Director of Diversity and Inclusion, I was quite disappointed with the closed door dialogue for various reasons. There was not enough time, and I did not moderate it well. Beyond that, I was disappointed with the responses from the governing board members because it does not seem like anything will change. In terms of dining, it seemed like they had already made up their mind before coming to the meeting that there will be no opt-out option at all. It did not really feel like a conversation.”