story | Nicholas Lua, Features Editor, Justin Ong, Managing Editor and Dave Chappell, Editor-in-Chief
photo | Dave Chappell
The Yale-NUS College student graduation committee caused uproar among the student body, after it announced that the College intended to disband them. In a post on the Yale-NUS College Students Facebook Page, on Monday, Feb. 6, the committee claimed they had been repeatedly overridden, including in the decision to make Richard Levin the event’s commencement speaker.
However, members of the administration refuted the statement. In an email on Monday to student graduation committee members, Christopher Bridges, dean of the Dean of Students Office (DOS), said that “the committee wasn’t dissolved as much as it evolved.”
In an earlier email obtained by The Octant, Mr. Bridges informed the graduation committee that the administration would “dissolve” the graduation committee as it had “met [its] charges.”
The email added that the committee’s other duties were in the hands of the graduation sub-committees. In Monday’s email, Mr. Bridges added that the committee turned into four graduation sub-committees, each responsible for a different aspect of graduation: designing the graduation gown, selecting a student speaker, planning Class Day and planning Senior Week.
An Unexpected Announcement
Members of the student graduation committee did not foresee the announcement. In an email to the Student Government on March 28, 2016, Mr. Bridges said that the school was forming a “student graduation task force” to “finalize some choices, provide input and feedback, and generally function as the voice of the student body in the process.” A member of the committee, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Octant that they were not told that the committee would be dissolved once they had fulfilled their duties.
“He didn’t find it productive to have the student graduation committee anymore, so he disbanded us…I find it quite odd that you can disband a committee before an event takes place,” Mollie Saltskog ’17, another member of the committee, said.
In response to their dissolution, the committee sent an email to Mr. Bridges informing him that they did not wish to be disbanded. Saltskog said that the committee had an important role to play all the way up to graduation. This involved overseeing the different components of graduation and assisting the graduation sub-committees. “If DOS wants to disband us, we will try to structure the committee through some other administrative office in the school,” she said.
The Role of the Committee
According to the committee’s Facebook statement, even before the dissolution the college had repeatedly overridden the opinions of the committee, and that the College had shown no effort “demonstrating that graduation was an event beyond any other [public relations] obligation.” They said that the DOS had effectively passed graduation on to Public Affairs (PA) to cover and “consistently discouraged or disabled [the graduation committee] from advocating for elements [they] thought were appropriate for graduation weekend.” Issues such as ticket quotas for family members as well as details about the final brunch had been “brushed off by the DOS,” they added.
“We felt that there was no genuine effort to actually involve and listen to us, or any students for that matter,” they said in the statement.
In an email to the committee, on Monday Feb. 6, Mr. Bridges said “these complaints feel manufactured.” He said he had asked everyone in the room during the last committee meeting “what additional areas they wished to have voice in regarding graduation.”
In an email interview with The Octant, Mr. Bridges said the graduation committee had input on many institutional decisions regarding graduation. Neither Public Affairs nor the DOS had responsibility for making final graduation decisions. Some decisions were led by the student committee, and some institutional decisions were taken by the institution. “Yale-NUS and the DOS have repeatedly sought and honored student voice and contributions, and will always continue to do so,” he said. As examples of student committee-led decisions, he cited the gown design and the student speaker.
Still, another member of the committee, who also asked to remain anonymous, said even these received minimal support. Although the committee members raised the idea of a graduation gown during the committee’s first meeting last year, work on the gown did not start until September. Even a minor victory like increasing the length of the student speaker’s speech from three to five minutes to six minutes faced the administration’s reluctance, the student said.
The decision to dissolve the committee followed the announcement that Richard Levin would be the commencement speaker at the event. The decision was made despite the committee providing a list of student-submitted suggestions, none of which included Levin, they said.
Pericles Lewis, President of Yale-NUS College, said that while the students were asked for input on the speaker, “when their first choices were not available [the College] made it clear that the president would select the speaker.” Mr. Lewis added that he thought Mr. Levin would be a great speaker and that it would be ungracious to question the choice of such a distinguished academic.
Mr. Bridges has asked committee members to schedule a meeting through Shirley Thia, Senior Executive of DOS, so that he and the committee can discuss the committee’s approach and how best to meet its goals.
Ms. Saltskog said that the student graduation committee was “disappointed but very surprised” at its dissolution. “Yale-NUS, as we understand it as students, is about building this community together,” she said.