The New Dean of Students Must Restore Our Trust Deficit
story | Terence Anthony Wang, Editor-in-Chief
photo | Aditya Karkera, Business and Distribution
On the morning of Wednesday, May 30, Dean of Students (DoS) Christopher Bridges sent an unexpected email to the Yale-NUS student body, announcing that he would be stepping down from his role effective June 14.
The next day, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Joanne Roberts wrote a follow-up email to students, stating that she would serve as the acting DoS. Ms. Roberts also shared that the search for the new DoS would begin soon, and would “take into account feedback from all quarters” of the Yale-NUS community.
I commend Ms. Roberts’ message of openness and inclusivity. It is a welcome and long overdue first step to restoring the widening trust deficit that has been plaguing our community—a deficit that has reared its ugly head in the past few turbulent semesters.
Mr. Bridges became the DoS of Yale-NUS in Jan. 2016. His departure, quite frankly, leaves behind a portfolio in disarray.
In the past two years alone, we have witnessed growing student anxiety and despair over various issues fundamental to student life and welfare. In Oct. 2016, The Octant ran an exposé over the college’s Counselling Centre (previously known as Wellness Centre). The article highlighted an understaffed counselling team facing high turnover and internal politicking, straining the already-tight mental health resources in an increasingly stressed-out college. Student concerns culminated in a tense town hall during the same month, where former President of Yale-NUS Pericles Lewis faced multiple questions over the topic.
As it turns out, that was only the beginning.
In early 2017, the sudden dissolution of the Class of 2017’s student graduation committee—incidentally, by Mr. Bridges—caught its members by surprise. Already frustrated with the perceived lack of support from the DoS office throughout the committee’s existence, the student members wrote to Mr. Bridges to protest the dissolution. Mr. Bridges responded that “the committee wasn’t dissolved as much as it evolved”—directly contradicting what the earlier announcement email had told them.
The creation of the Events Approval Committee in Feb. 2018 also sparked alarm amongst some students. The committee was viewed by some as potentially restricting the type of events that could be organized within campus grounds, especially in view of Singapore’s tight laws on the use of public space. Students were most worried with the sudden announcement of the committee’s formation and the lack of student consultation, and saw it as another troubling sign of an insular college administration.
These issues culminated yet again in another tense town hall in Feb. 2017. At the time, it was the most well-attended town hall in Yale-NUS history.
(Upon entering Yale-NUS in Aug. 2016, I recall Mr. Lewis declaring to the freshmen that when something is done for the first time in the college, it is an innovation; done a second time, it becomes tradition. I somehow doubt that he ever foresaw that statement applying to anxiety-filled town halls.)
The worst was yet to come, however. Sexual assault and misconduct became the next major concern to receive the spotlight, after several students published an open letter highlighting increasing frustration with unclear policies, obscure and secretive procedures, and above all an administration unresponsive to their concerns.
With frustration simmering to a boil, the Yale-NUS community was jolted by the college’s first ever sit-in protest in March 2018. It called for greater transparency and accountability from senior administration members, and protesters directly referenced several painfully-familiar issues: mental health, sexual misconduct, and the use of public spaces, among others.
This worrisome pattern of recurring problems could not be clearer had it been chiseled in black, bold letters on our white college walls—a pattern now two years in the running. Furthermore, the problems share one uncomfortable point in common: nearly all of them fall under the existing DoS portfolio.
Certainly, it would be foolish to suggest that one person should bear the burdens of an entire college, and equally foolish to say that one person should fix all of its problems. But no one (as far as I am aware) has ever claimed such a thing. Instead, many students have asked time and time again for communication, support, and understanding.
What exactly does that entail? Above all else, I suspect that what we truly want is sincere respect. We want to know that our concerns are being taken seriously, and not dismissed as frivolous student issues. We want to be certain that our college leaders are willing to put students first in student-facing issues—even if it may sometimes mean making administration more consultative, and thus slower and more difficult.
This is especially true for the DoS. At the most fundamental level, the DoS and their office serve as the nexus between the students and the college administration. In other words, our trust in the DoS translates directly into trust in the college’s leadership.
Missteps, poor decisions, and an overall aversion to open communication in the past few semesters have severely harmed that trust. For some, the damage is irreparable, and their perception of an administration that is hostile towards student interest will sadly persist.
The importance of the DoS’ role, therefore, cannot be understated. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that Ms. Roberts’ and her team’s search for our new dean will be among the most critical projects in our college’s short history.
The new DoS, whoever they may be, will take on a very challenging role. They will have to be prepared to put in an extreme amount of effort to rebuild trust in a fragile student body. A student body that is always critical, and never afraid to speak out. But this great challenge also translates into a great opportunity: if they succeed, it will mean nothing less than the rejuvenation of an entire college. That in itself is priceless.
I wish Ms Roberts’ team the best of luck, and look to the future with cautious optimism.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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