Frustrated at College Administration, Students Stage Sit-in Protest
story | Yip Jie Ying and Kanako Sugawara, Managing Editors; Dion Ho, Senior Writer
Photo | Dave Lim, Guest Photographer
Ed: A previous version of this article stated that Yale-NUS College President Tan Tai Yong wrote that a town hall was already planned for Mar. 21. The date he referenced is Mar. 22, and we have updated the article with the necessary change(s). Two names of students have also been removed as they were retrieved from private Facebook groups.
On the morning of March 9, 2018, several Yale-NUS College students staged a sit-in protest at the Elm College gateway. The protest was held to express frustrations with what these students found to be a lack of accountability and transparency from the college administration, on a range of issues including the use of public spaces, the changes to the Writers’ Centre, mental health policies, and sexual misconduct on campus.
During the sit-in, the protesters handed out printed copies of a list of demands to passers-by. The demands included the reinstatement of monthly town halls, more student representation on all student-facing policies, and the development of an honor code covering students, faculty, and staff members. The document also requested a written response from Yale-NUS College President Tan Tai Yong that would answer the demands with “specific actionables” and timelines. It stated that the protesters would not leave until they received this response.
The protesters also placed pieces of A3-sized paper with short written statements around them. Examples of these statements included “I am outraged at the lacking knowledge and resources available for female sexual health” and “I’m not informed: When/How often does “senior leadership” meet? Where are the minutes from these meetings? Why don’t I have them?”
Over the next few hours, more students joined in the sit-in, with around 20 to 30 students participating by 3PM. These students added their own written statements.
In an online Question and Answer (Q&A) statement, the organizers of protest explained the use of different documents in the sit-in. They referred to the pieces of paper laid on the ground as “‘I’ Statements,” which were written separately by individual students to voice their own concerns. They also stated that the list of demands handed out to passers-by was what unified them as a group.
Shawn Hoo ’20, who participated in the sit-in protest, said the range of issues highlighted “were all part of the same problem.” He said that the administration was “not consistent” in their responses to students on these issues. “No one wants to take responsibility for making decisions,” he said. Kavya Gopal ’18, who was involved with the organization of the sit-in, concurred with Hoo, saying that “there were a lot of inconsistencies in the rationales we were given for why certain things were being implemented.”
At 4:21PM on the same day, President of Yale-NUS College Mr. Tan Tai Yong sent an email to the entire college community in response to the sit-in protest. In the email, he addressed the three demands of monthly town halls, student representation, and the development of an honor code.
Mr. Tan wrote that “the President’s Office had always held one town hall per semester,” citing previous town halls that occurred in Oct. 2016, Mar. 2017, and Oct. 2017. He also wrote that a town hall for the current semester had already been planned for Mar. 22. “Moving ahead, we would be happy to work with the Student Government to arrange monthly town halls,” Mr. Tan said.
On student representation, Mr. Tan stated that Yale-NUS “is, and has always been, committed to involving our students in policy and community decisions.” He cited the party policy review and design of first-year programs as specific examples where the administration sought student feedback and participation. Mr. Tan also invited students who feel inadequately represented to “reach out to [him] directly to carry on the conversation.”
Lastly, Mr. Tan wrote that a Student Honor Code had been “in the works” since August 2016, and that there are plans to “engage students, staff and faculty on this project.” Documents published by the Student Government on the Feb. 8, 2017 Town Hall revealed that the Student Government had attempted to draft an Honor Code.
Reaction from the Protesters
After Mr. Tan’s email was sent, students who were involved in the protests deliberated on how to proceed with the protest. Gopal said “most people [whom she personally approached in the space] said that they felt the response was not adequate, and fell into the same traps of generalizing rather than making promises.”
While the sit-in protesters had different opinions on how to move forward, Gopal said she found that most of the people she had asked wanted to continue the sit-in and to respond to the email. In the same Q&A document released earlier, the protesters announced a meeting at 7PM that evening. They extended an open invitation to students and faculty members to attend the meeting.
This meeting was held at the Tan Chin Tuan (TCT) Lecture Theatre and was moderated by Ms. Diana Chester, Postdoctoral Fellow of Humanities at Yale-NUS College, who emphasized the importance of everyone’s voices being heard. The meeting began with a show of hands as to who were satisfied/dissatisfied about Mr. Tan’s letter, to which a majority voted that they were “not satisfied”.
During the meeting, students said that they wanted to have transparent conversations and policy clarifications regarding the public spaces policy, for the college to uphold their promise of academic freedom, and to obtain clear answers from the senior administration for questions and concerns regarding this matter. Other students brought up concerns regarding the balance between student input and final decisions made by the college administration, citing the sudden incorporation of the Latin Honor system in 2016 and the confusion surrounding the Writers’ Centre review process as examples.
Students were also concerned about lack of clarity regarding which office they should turn to to discuss each particular issue. In response, Mr. Bridges said in an email interview that he works directly with students on committees and task forces related to wellness and sexual respect and culture on campus. He also said that he partners with Joanne Roberts, acting Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, on the public spaces policy.
Mr. Tan also added that in general, he supports the creation of a policy where “after being sent to speak to two to three staff members, students should be able to escalate the matter.” He said that while every organization has some degree of incoordination, “there is no excuse for a small school like ours.”
Reaction from Other Students
However, not all students were supportive of the sit-in protest. In the meeting at the TCT lecture theatre, students raised concerns on how the protest, which was started by a group of 29 students, seemed to speak on behalf of the entire student population. Students questioned whether the protest was representative of the entire college community, including those of different political opinions and levels of comfort with political activity.
In response, the organizers of the protest said that that they did not intend to represent the student body, and that their documents stated that they were “doing this of [their] own accord.” The handout with the list of demands was also written in first-person to avoid speaking for the entire student body.
Furthermore, the tone and the language of posters and messages relating to the sit-in were criticized, with students saying that there was a need for trigger warnings and to refrain from personal attacks, such as those on individual career choices. Others felt that the rather abrasive language used by some made the protest less effective because it made it more combative than collaborative.
At around 9PM, the organizers wrapped up the meeting. However, they requested students who were interested in participating in a follow-up sit-in protest the next day to stay behind.
At 9:29PM, a student made a post in the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook group, voicing his opposition to a sit-in protest on Open Day. The post was ‘liked’ by more than 300 students as of Mar. 14, 2018.
Following that, the students who had remained in the Tan Chin Tuan lecture theatre responded in another Facebook post, announcing that they had decided not to continue the sit-in protest on Open Day.
Lead-up to Protest
From 8.30PM to around 11.30PM on Thursday, March 8, the night before the protest, a private information-sharing session was held at the Saga Rector’s Commons among around 30 students who had personal experiences with the various issues and task forces. Kristian-Marc James Paul ’19, one of the initial organizers of the sit-in, said that he was first approached by Jolene Lum ’19 and Ritika Biswas ’18 about gathering a group of students who have been involved in multiple task forces to share about the common problems that they have been facing.
Following this, they personally contacted other like-minded students with whom they have already had similar conversations. Paul said that during the meeting, the space was very emotionally-charged as people shared personal anecdotes about how their physical and mental health have suffered while fighting for causes that they were passionate about, only to find out that their efforts have been futile.
In response, students started discussing how a statement was needed to express how the students felt that they “had gotten to a point where they felt they couldn’t say anything anymore, and that they had been silenced.” Silence was thus decided to be used as the symbol behind sitting and being quiet, in order to “illuminate that there are larger institutional problems that had caused the pain.”
Although Gopal revealed that the initial meeting was not initially called with the intention of holding a sit-in protest, by 11PM, the group of students had decided on doing a silent sit-in on the next day. The organizers decided to have at least two people at any one point, for practical reasons.
However, some students expressed discomfort towards the information-sharing session. Yogesh Tulsi ’20, who was invited to the session but declined to participate in the protest, said he felt “very tense and very scared” during the session. “There was this sense that if you don’t agree with us, clearly there is something wrong with you.” He also said that he was “shut down and yelled at” by another student when he attempted to propose alternative forms of activism. “I was told that I was ‘the perfect example of everything that was wrong in this school,’” Tulsi said. “[The student said] that this is the product of the Common Curriculum poisoning our brains, and we have to f— nuance and fight with anger.”
The meeting continued until early the next day. The sit-in protest started at 7.30AM, with Paul being one of the first two people starting the shift.
In an interview after the sit-in protest, Mr. Tan agreed that there was a need for more communication among the students and the administration, reiterating that he had “no issues with having more town halls.” He also maintains an open-door policy and bi-weekly lunches with small groups of students.
However, Mr. Tan mentioned that he would “also like to involve the student government in this,” lest the student government gets sidestepped with direct access to the President, which may cause more confusion. “While I am open, I also appreciate that there are structures,” he said.
Pang Wei Han ’19, who was also one of the student organisers of the sit-in, hopes that “everyone [can] choose to trust again [in one another],” noting that much of the anger and frustration from Friday stemmed out of love and care for the College community. “I am hopeful that our school community—student, staff, faculty—is loving, trusting and caring and that every voice can be heard,” he added.
Following the sit-in protest, a town hall was held at the Multi-Purpose Hall at 8:30PM on Mar. 14 and saw hundreds of students, staff, faculty members and alumni in attendance. Another town hall will be held on Mar. 20 and will be attended by several members of the Yale-NUS Governing Board.
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