“Yes, my middle name really is Hercules,” Dr. Thomas Davies laughs. “And please call me Tom.”
Story | Evan See, Guest Writer Image | Provided by Dr. Thomas Davies
“I had a very difficult birth, where my breathing was cut off for a long time,” he explains. “You know, the story of Hercules’ birth was that the goddess Hera put snakes in his crib because she was jealous of Zeus’ affair with his mother.”
“But he strangles the snakes anyway,” Tom adds. “My mother thought it would be a good allusion to use as my name.”
It seems natural to look up Tom’s education and find that he read Classics at the University of Otago in New Zealand for his Bachelor’s. Posh parents? I hazard a guess.
I literally couldn’t have been more wrong. “They aren’t formally educated people; neither of them graduated high school. But they were well-read, interested in education, and interested in reading to me from an early age,” he explains.
But the origins of his name aren’t the only fascinating thing about Tom’s childhood. He recalls growing up in a “very, very left-wing, primarily Marxist environment,” while his parents were involved in political activism in New Zealand. “We had a bust of Lenin on the mantelpiece, and Capital [by Karl Marx] was a sort of scriptural text,” he continues.
As it happens, Tom is teaching a class this semester on Marx’s life and theory, and I’m one of the fifteen Yale-NUS students enrolled in his class.
Turn the clock back to August 2021, and I find myself stumbling into a Historical Immersion class called “Karl Marx and the Age of Revolutions.” We go around the class introducing ourselves; and I call myself out as a “self-aware champagne socialist type.” Our lecturer Tom, however, introduces himself as a philosopher who studies the ancient world (particularly the Greeks). Ancient Greeks and Romans, ancient Indians, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, and… Karl Marx. It’s a strange combination that raises a couple eyebrows for sure.
A Man of Eighteen (!!) Languages
The more I speak with Tom about his research, it becomes clear that his title “Lecturer of Humanities (Philosophy)” alone doesn’t quite fully describe his unique interests.
His language skill alone should hint at this fact. He boasts an impressive arsenal of languages under his belt—six fluently, with basic comprehension of another nine—and that’s just the dead languages. Tom also speaks French, Italian, and German, and mentions that he’s picked up some Malay since moving to Singapore.
Sure enough, a lot of the research he does requires him to understand a wide range of ancient textual traditions.
“Cultural exchange in the ancient world” is the descriptor that we eventually settle on. “I’m interested in how a number of different ancient traditions interacted with and had mutual influence on one another. I suppose what I do is mainly the history of philosophy and science, and a little bit of literary history as well,” he elaborates.
This is where the interest in Marx comes in. With the environment he grew up in, and always having been involved in politics, the Marxist tradition was a natural fit into his research interests. “But I didn’t really engage with Marx until I was much older,” he noted. “It was only after I got involved with trade union organizing in the United States that I returned to the text and found it interesting in ways that I had never seen before.”
Currently, Tom is working on a couple of fascinating projects. One of them, a book project based on his dissertation, will argue that early Greek philosophy was significantly shaped by dialogue with certain non-Greek philosophical traditions, particularly the Egyptian and Iranian traditions.
In the longer term, he is working on a book about the theory of race in pre-modern societies.
“Many people believe that racism is an ideological formation that originated with the capitalist system after around the 16th century, but scholars argue about that. I think that race-like ideological formations have certainly taken shape in the past, and we can learn about the genesis of race in the modern period by comparing it with these formations. So, I’m looking at things like ancient Greek ethnography and medical science, Egyptian Imperial propaganda, Hindu and Buddhist philosophy of caste as instances of that,” he explains.
Sounds exciting, I say. When’s it gonna be out?
“Let’s be optimistic and say five years,” Tom laughs.
Coming to Yale-NUS
Tom joined Yale-NUS College as a Lecturer of Humanities (Philosophy) at the start of AY 2021/2022, and has been teaching the Common Curriculum modules Philosophy & Political Thought 1 (PPT1) and Literature & Humanities 1 (LH1) as well.
But his association with Yale-NUS actually dates back several years to 2018, when he participated in a conference on Comparative Global Antiquity organized by Yale-NUS while he was a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University.
“I was just extremely impressed by the intellectual culture here and the Common Curriculum. It really is like nothing else in the Anglophone world, in terms of the breadth and the coverage,” he says. “It was really in my wheelhouse of looking at the ancient world as a highly interactive network, rather than siloing it into individual disciplines.”
I ask him whether it’s lived up to his expectations. “I love it even more than I expected to,” he says. “I’m really sad to see it close down.”
Teaching is one of the great joys in life for him, Tom tells me. I’m glad to hear, then, that his experience with students at Yale-NUS seems to have lived up to the expectations that attracted him here in the first place.
“My office hours fill up and overflow every week! That would never happen when I was teaching in Princeton,” Tom laughs. That’s news to me—I, for one, have not been quite diligent enough to stop by his office yet this semester. Good job, freshies.
One thing he’s particularly enjoyed teaching is the Chinese philosophical tradition that students begin the PPT1 syllabus with. First-year students are exposed to the thought of Ancient Chinese philosophers such as Mozi, Mengzi (Mencius), and Zhuangzi at the start of their first semester at Yale-NUS. For many students, these texts are the very first works of philosophy they have been exposed to.
“It’s a really fascinating and useful introduction to an extremely rich period in the history of philosophy,” he explains. “Also, I had to teach without relying on expertise built up over years of study and familiarity with the language. It forced me to think about a skills-focused teaching much more than I had in the past.”
“I feel like I was incentivized to focus on teaching philosophical analysis and writing. It’s different from when I’m teaching Greek material, for instance, where I tend to talk about other things that aren’t as focused on the skills needed to be a philosopher.”
It’s difficult, however, to speak about the study of the Classics and antiquity (or the liberal arts, for that matter) and to avoid the elephant in the room. Often associated with preppy private schools and the elite upper class around the world, studying Homer or Aristotle is often seen as an exclusively privileged pursuit for those who have no need for a more vocationally focused training.
Tom definitely understands this critique. “It doesn’t help that you see the Yale-NUS campus blocking off the rest of NUS with these massive metal gates,” he admits.
“I think the value of antiquity has less to do with the content of canonical texts than with the general strangeness of the ancient world. It’s about studying the historical variety of human culture, not just a narrowly conceived vision of ‘the classics.’ For me, ancient materials are one of the quickest ways to extricate yourself from the assumptions and the blind spots you develop from your position in just one part of the history of humanity.”
“The kinds of economic and political organizations that we live under are very uncharacteristic of the vast majority of human history,” he goes on. “So, it would be a real shame to only experience the world as an inhabitant of the 21st century.”
“I’ve taught at a few state prisons in the United States to people who are certainly not holding a position of privilege in American society,” Tom adds. “I’ve seen that be of enormous benefit to a broad variety of people, including myself, because I grew up in a strong welfare state that subsidized my education and gave me time to commit to learning these kinds of things,”
To him, that’s the way to increase inclusivity in education. “My ideal solution would be to increase the resources and to remove the barriers for everyone to access these modes of education. We shouldn’t just remove what’s good about it.”
Apart from studying the ancient world, Tom enjoys taking walks in nature, and has spent some time looking for wild animals in Singapore. I’m confident that he’s seen more of Singapore’s nature in a few months than I have in 20 years. He also plays blues music on the guitar, and is looking forward to teaching two sections of PPT2 next semester.
“Are you a morning or night person?” I ask him. I think I already know the answer, having received at least one 3 am Canvas notification from him this semester. “I’m still awake at that time too,” I tell him. “I got like four hours of sleep last night.”
Story | Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief Photo | Yale-NUS Public Affairs
Last Friday (Nov. 5), The Octant’s editors interviewed Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong for the first time since the shock announcement, during which he revealed some faculty transition plans that have been keeping him busy.
As the College nears the end of this eventful year, Prof. Tan is also completing his full five-year term of appointment. In June 2022, Prof. Tan will hand over the leadership to Prof. Joanne Roberts, current Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs). Looking back on his eight-year journey, he shared with The Octant his thoughts, gratitude, and regrets.
Yihui: We were just informed last week that Joanne is going to be our new president. What are the reasons for not renewing your presidential term?
Prof. Tan: Well, there’s a really simple reason: I will finish five years of my full term next June. I’ve always had the view that I will just want to do one term, complete my term, and then hand it over to a successor.
That’s always been my plan. I think part of this is because of my belief in renewal. One gets tired after doing this for a period of time, and you always need to allow for renewal; you should always be prepared to pass the baton on to a successor.
As things stand, we’ve found an excellent next president, Joanne. I’m confident that she will be able to lead the college and do what needs to be done in the next few years. She’s very familiar with the college, she’s well-liked, well-respected. She is also very committed to the educational model that we have. And she’s got the experience of running the college in things like academic programmes, tenure processes, etc.
I see the presidency as an act of stewardship. You’re entrusted with the responsibilities to steward the college when you are in charge, but this is not a long-term career. And when I was given a contract, there was no promise that I’d do two terms. In fact, I was very clear, given my age as well—I am 60 this year—it’s always good to step down when the time comes, and then pass the stewardship to a successor.
Michael: So are you planning on going back to NUS History?
Prof. Tan: No, no plans to move back to NUS at this point in time. My current plan after June is to take a sabbatical. I don’t know how long the sabbatical will be, but I just want to get back to doing some of my research, which has been stalled for many years.
So I probably will hang around the college. I’m gonna ask for a little room somewhere. And then I’ll just move my books there and start thinking of perhaps another book project.
Ryan: Will you be staying in Yale-NUS to teach?
It’s possible if they want me. The first six months from June to the end of 2022 will be just for me to do my own work. After that, I will see what comes along; I’m not looking for anything. And if nothing comes along, then I’m happy to offer courses when the time comes.
Faculty transition plans: working things out on an individual basis
Yihui: What are the main challenges that you and your colleagues have been facing since the merger announcement?
Prof. Tan: One of the first things is the emotional issue. Everybody was shocked, upset, some angry. Even as many of us in the leadership team felt the same emotions, we have to manage the situation and make sure that we try to calm everybody down and try to get people to understand what’s happening, and then try to offer a path forward.
The second part is that people are not clear what the New College is going to look like; there are no details. I think, by and by as the planning committees meet, we are getting some clarity, some information coming through.
For instance, I think you might hear from Joanne that there will be a curriculum report coming shortly. I think some details have been worked out for student life as well.
Yihui: What are the general reactions toward the merger from faculty?
Prof. Tan: I’ve spoken to quite a few. They understand; they also have questions, of course, and anxieties. In fact, all the faculty would have spoken to Dean of Faculty David Post as well. He’s worked out the arrangements, and I think he’s also been very helpful in explaining to them what the steps are.
Some of the questions include: What if I don’t have a department to go to? Will I lose this part of my contract? I’ve been promised this, will I lose this if I want to move now? Can I move later or is it better for me to move earlier? What if I want to stay here until 2025? Is that possible? Will the department give me this and that? Will I lose my lab spaces? Will I be able to continue teaching in a new college if I want to? Those are the kinds of questions that they have been asking us.
Yihui: What has the Faculty Appointment Working Group settled so far?
Prof. Tan: The first priority is that we need to ensure that we are able to offer the much needed courses for the remaining cohorts at Yale-NUS up to 2025. But, at the same time, to provide a clear path for faculty to move forward, beyond 2025.
I chair the Faculty Appointments Working Group. And our main task is to work out a process that is clear and systematic for the transition of faculty to NUS gradually over the next several years, because you can imagine: there are 140 faculty here and each one of them will have specific needs and concerns and plans.
So we are working out the timelines, and other arrangements like how to share teaching loads over the next three or four years, and also requirements like laboratory needs and things like that. By sharing teaching loads, I mean faculty sharing their obligations at the NUS department and at Yale-NUS as they start to transition to NUS.
So for instance, Professor A wants to move to NUS History next year, then we will say: You still have to teach two courses, which we need at Yale-NUS, and maybe one course at NUS History.
But Professor A may say: I’m not prepared to move yet, I won’t be moving until 2024, 2025, [before] which I’ll teach most of my courses at Yale-NUS. That’s also possible. But we can do the affiliations—that means the appointment can be put on paper, but the teaching load can be all done at Yale-NUS.
So these are the arrangements that we’re making almost on an individual basis, because if we don’t do this as a kind of a blanket rule, we have to look at needs, we have to look at individual preferences, look at the details of the NUS departments as well.
By early next year, most of our faculty will have a good sense of what to expect. And then they will start the transfers gradually, not immediately; not everybody will move at the same time.
Ryan: You mentioned that you were trying to map faculty from Yale-NUS to NUS. What about those departments that don’t have any NUS equivalent?
Prof. Tan: We’ve been able to map all faculty to some departments or schools at NUS. For instance, while there isn’t an Urban Studies department, faculty can actually join either Geography or Architecture, in the College of Design and Engineering. There’s an environmental studies programme at NUS, but Environmental Studies professors also can join Geography. NUS has a range of schools that can accommodate other majors.
Yihui: If some professors wanted to teach in a liberal arts college, and the New College is not going to be one, what would happen to them?
Prof. Tan: This will be a kind of a personal choice. If someone says, look, I signed up for a small liberal arts college, we respect that.
But it’s important that you don’t lose your job instantly. And my advice to faculty has always been, why don’t you take your time to think carefully about what you want to do in the next few years. Yale-NUS still has four years to go.
In any case, in any given year, there are people who will always resign from the college and move to other things. And we’ll have to respect what people want to do. I will support them in that process, of course.
Successes and Regrets
Yihui: What is your greatest success during your time at Yale-NUS?
Prof. Tan: I don’t want to be presumptuous and claim credit for success. But I must say I’ve had an exhilarating ride. It’s been a good eight years in college.
If I look back at eight years, I would say that what’s made me most proud is, first of all, the ability to help build a college. We started with almost nothing. I helped build the college, the academic programs of the college, assembled over several years, a wonderful team of colleagues, faculty, and staff, and then being able to work with everyone, colleagues, and students to build a distinctive Yale-NUS ethos and spirit.
It’s been challenging in that sense, because this was the work of building something fresh. But it was gratifying. And by establishing the college, one feels that one is building something, and then providing stability as we grew, and then also making it better bit by bit.
Yihui: Any regrets?
Prof. Tan: No, no regrets. Except that my hair has turned a bit white. If you look at a picture of me in 2017, someone showed me a picture of the head of black hair then; now it’s all salt and pepper. But this is all part of growing old.
I didn’t come from a liberal arts background. But I thought that this experience working in a liberal arts college opened my eyes, and I could understand better the kinds of educational models that we are able to offer.
So no regrets, no regrets. Except that I kind of miss the research and just being a teacher.
Yihui: The New College is not going to be a Liberal Arts College—how do you feel about it? You built something from scratch and now it is getting removed.
Prof. Tan: As I said to you before, one doesn’t get involved in this project for eight, ten years and not feel something about it. But things evolve, things move on, and I don’t know what the New College is going to be like. I’m kind of a pragmatic realist in a sense that these things—change will happen, and we just hope that whatever we do, we continue to try to make sure that the good things that we do can continue.
A friend wrote to me after the announcement, and I’ll share this with you.
He said: “In academia, what we do is like building Tibetan sand mandalas.” He explains that they look beautiful one day, and then they are blown away by the wind the next day. But that’s not important, he said, the important thing is that we were involved in building it, and that experience must be what matters.
So I see that, upon reflection, that I was part of this exercise in building up a liberal arts college in Singapore. And I think nobody can quarrel with the fact that I think we’ve made it a success. That would have been the thing that will stay with me for a long, long time.
I would have loved to see Yale-NUS carry on for many, many years. But, well, as things turn out, I do hope that the New College will keep some of the legacies of Yale-NUS. I think then Yale-NUS will not disappear from the face of the earth. It will continue in some ways, and it informs the way the New College should function.
Story by | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Pictures by | Mpiwa Gwindi (she/her)
“Chemutengure, chemutengure,” Mpiwa Gwindi ‘24 sings a traditional call and response song in the Shona language, swaying from side to side as she plays on the mbira. Soft, metallic musical notes fill the air in accompaniment.
The mbira is a musical instrument from Zimbabwe, sometimes called a “thumb piano.” It is small enough to fit inside Mpiwa’s luggage, yet large enough to hold incredible stories.
Mpiwa has now shared her music all over the world, performing in international events, releasing original songs, and even breaking a world record along the way.
Besides the mbira, Mpiwa plays a few other instruments. “The first instrument I picked up [in 2010] was the marimba, a wooden xylophone from Zimbabwe,” she describes. “There are different types of marimbas, depending on what sounds you want to achieve.”
Other instruments in Mpiwa’s repertoire include the hosho (Zimbabwe’s version of the maracas), the djembe (a traditional African drum), and the guitar.
While the mbira and marimba are now big parts of Mpiwa’s life, things might have turned out very differently. When ten-year-old Mpiwa first started learning the mbira, she had to do it behind her mother’s back.
“I told her: ‘Mom, I’m playing the marimba,’” Mpiwa recalls, “and she said, ‘okay!’”
“And then I said, ‘I’m thinking of also playing the mbira.’ And she was, like, no!”
Though Mpiwa did not know it at the time, the mbira is customarily associated with spirit mediums, used to communicate with the dead.
In some African villages, there would traditionally be a religious ritual called the bira, an all-night ceremony where a connection is sought with one’s ancestral spirits. “In the bira, you had a designated mbira player,” Mpiwa explains. “Playing the mbira was seen as a specific calling.”
“They would do the kushaura, which is to lead a song or sing a melody. Then, they would communicate with the dead through the words that they sing. That was part of their religion: They believed that the way to receive healing or clarity was to get advice from people who were gone.”
The ceremony would then proceed to kusvikirwa, which occurs when the mbira players invite the dead spirits into their bodies. The spirits take over and communicate through the living.
Mpiwa was not deterred from learning the mbira despite its associations with spirit mediums. Instead, she firmly believes that the mbira’s music should be appreciated for its own beauty.
“At that time when my mom said I shouldn’t play the mbira, I was very disappointed, because I really enjoyed the instrument,” Mpiwa recounts. “I did stop for a while in obedience. However, I picked it up again, two years later, and I kept on playing by myself at school.”
“When I was 14, my mom saw me perform with the mbira for the first time ever,” Mpiwa continues. “That’s when she realized that it’s not about what the instrument is associated with. This is about the child and her passion.”
In modern-day Zimbabwe, where Christianity is the dominant religion, summoning dead spirits is considered taboo by many. Mpiwa describes having had to explain to many people, including Zimbabwean national television broadcasters, that playing the mbira is no longer about its traditional associations for her.
“I don’t want to summon dead people using this instrument,” she says firmly. “It goes against my own beliefs, and it’s also not really practiced today. I don’t do that, even if there are artists who have done it before me.”
“This instrument is beautiful. When I play it for anyone, they go: Wow, this sounds amazing. They don’t hear dead people; they hear peaceful sounds from metal keys being produced, and it’s beautiful.”
“I think that’s what the instrument should continue to be.”
Like Mpiwa, many young mbira players are also championing the instrument independently from its age-old traditions . She explains that several modern Zimbabwean musicians like Hope Masike, Stella Chiweshe, and Thomas Mapfumo also incorporate the mbira into their music, alongside other traditional Zimbabwean instruments like the marimba, the hosho, and the ngoma (another traditional African drum).
Despite her initial disapproval, Mpiwa’s mother became extremely supportive after witnessing her performance. “I think it takes a lot for parents to see the world from their child’s eyes instead of their own,” she says sincerely. “For me personally, considering my protective nature, I don’t know if I would ever allow my daughter to do something culturally associated with spirit mediums.”
“But my mom let me do it, and she supported me from then on. I didn’t feel the need to explain to her, and I didn’t feel like I was fighting her. I would tell her about my performances, and she would just take me there. I’m very grateful, because I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things that I do without her.”
Another instrument that has left its mark on Mpiwa’s life is the marimba. The marimba has brought Mpiwa to the world stage: first for Guinness World Records, and later for the World Championships of Performing Arts.
It was an ordinary, unassuming Friday afternoon in 2018 when Mpiwa’s aunt approached her with an absurd proposition: why not attempt to set the world record for the largest ensemble of marimba players?
Mpiwa smiles. “I remember the place where I was when I read the message. I was in between this passageway and my parents’ bedroom.”
“I’m on my phone, worrying about my battery, and my aunt was like, why don’t we break the Guinness World Record?” Mpiwa laughs again as she re-enacts a disbelieving scoff. “I’m like, okay, sure…”
Mpiwa realized her aunt was serious when she saw what the current record at the time was. “My aunt showed me, and it was 108. One hundred and eight! I was, like, who holds this record? I personally know more than 108 players!” Mpiwa grins. “I could just call them and say: ‘Let’s go play and set this record!’”
“So, Australia owned the record. And I was, like, what? They don’t even own marimbas! What are they doing, setting the Guinness World Record for an instrument that we own?”
That was all the convincing Mpiwa needed. Over the next two months, she and her family set out to assemble the largest marimba ensemble the world had ever seen.
They planned for the event to be held on May 25—Africa Day, the annual commemoration of the foundation of the Organization of African Unity. “Over the next two months of planning, we invited so many schools!” Mpiwa recounts.
“This was never done before, so we had to do a lot of convincing. We had to convince them that it was not going to be a flop; we had to get a lot of support and sponsorships because we didn’t have the money and the services to carry out the event.”
Marimbas come in different types, including the soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass, each producing music of different pitches and qualities. One challenge for Mpiwa and her team, especially given the unprecedented size of the ensemble, was to arrange these marimbas to harmoniously play a song together.
Fortunately, Mpiwa received immense support from Prince Edward School, whose marimba band and coach assisted her in arranging the song for the marimba players. Prince Edward School’s principal and music director also agreed to open up their school’s facilities to host the record-breaking event.
There were also logistical challenges to handle, as marimbas are bulky and not easily transported. “We had people coming from outside the city, transporting their marimbas on a public holiday,” Mpiwa says. “There was so much commitment and devotion.”
“It took a lot from me,” she admits. “I’m really grateful, because even on the days when I felt very unmotivated and bogged down by people saying no and people questioning me, my mom would just wake me up every morning and say: ‘Go draft this letter; go speak to this person; go plan what you’re going to say to the press.’”
When the day finally arrived, it was a storming success. “With the help of my mom and my aunt, we managed to pass the record by 101 players,” Mpiwa smiles. “That’s double the previous record!”
The record-breaking event, named the ZiMarimba Fest, played host to 209 marimba players from all over Zimbabwe. Together, the ensemble played the song Manhanga Kutapira, a Shona song whose title translates to “Sweet Pumpkin.”
“It’s a classic marimba song, the first song I ever learned on the marimba,” Mpiwa says fondly. “There’s a melody that accompanies it. Come and see, come and taste how sweet these pumpkins are,” she sings in Shona.
For the Love of Music
Reflecting on the success of ZiMarimba Fest, Mpiwa says: “I feel very, very humbled and grateful for everyone who has supported it from the beginning. I still can’t believe I’m the same person who did that three years ago.”
“The marimba is my mother instrument. It’s the first instrument I started playing, and I love it so much. I hope I can do more—this is just the beginning. Imagine if we have way more people of different fields, all together in one place. What else could happen?”
True to her word, Mpiwa’s work to spread her love for music did not stop there. Two months later, she travelled to California to perform the mbira and marimba in the finals of the World Championships of Performing Arts.
Since then, Mpiwa has been taking professional classes in songwriting and music production. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned,” she says, “is that sometimes, when you come up with a song, you don’t have to love it instantly. There’s a Shona proverb that says: ‘Even an elephant, as big as it is, has been raised from a small size.’”
Mpiwa has since produced and released her own song in August this year, titled Tichengete (Keep Us Safe). Currently, Mpiwa is working on producing the finale song for the student-written musical Tiwala. She is also working remotely with a professional music producer in Zimbabwe on her next song, which she hopes to release this year.
“Music, for me, started off as a hobby,” she reflects. “Over the years, it is no longer just that. It’s become a lifestyle. I have been able to find the music in everything in my life. It’s a conversation with myself; the way I understand myself.”
“It’s my eternal child, you know? It never grows. It’s stayed with me, and I’m very grateful that I’ve managed to go far with it.”
When asked if she had any concluding thoughts, Mpiwa’s reply was firm and passionate. “If anyone has an artistic interest, they should always let that part of themselves run free,” she says. “Don’t put it off when you get paid, or when you get a stable career.”
“Just do it. You never know where it might take you.”
Q: I know that a lot of professors have had the experience of living in different countries. Would you like to share with me about where you have lived?
A: I’m originally from Japan. So I spent most of my life in Japan, I did my undergrad, master’s, everything in Japan. And then when I decided to go to grad school, I went to the United States, because [for] my field, international relations, US gives a very good training. So I lived in the United States in Los Angeles, where I did my PhD, and then I finished my PhD this May. So, I moved back to Japan to spend some time with my family, and then came to Singapore.
Q: You mentioned that you went to university in both Japan and in the US. How was your university experience? Do you have any “life advice” for students at Yale-NUS?
A: Well, it depends on where they’re thinking of going. t I think what is important to keep in your mind is that no place is perfect. Any society has pros and cons.
For instance, while I was in Japan before I moved to the United States, that’s the only country I knew as a living environment. I have traveled to 20 countries or so, so I knew some other countries, but I didn’t live there. Always nice to do some adventurous stuff, but as a living environment, Japan was the only one, so I couldn’t compare and I couldn’t really appreciate a lot of aspects of Japanese society back then.
But once I moved to the United States, these two societies are so different, both regarding almost all aspects of their culture and professional life and everything. I came to appreciate, for instance, how Japan was safe and clean as a living environment.
But at the same time the US has something else to offer. The educational system is totally different, and students are encouraged to speak up whenever they want, and their opinion really matters, whereas in Japan it’s more hierarchical, professors talk, and students never talk unless the professor asks them to talk. So it’s very different.
Q: Your research interests are focused on global health, public health policy, international development, international organizations, global governments and non-state actors. Would you like to elaborate a bit more?
A: My field of research is international relations or international political economy, usually located in the Department of Political Science in the United States, but here it’s more interdisciplinary. But what I substantially study is global health.
When I say I study Global Health, I’m not studying the science aspects of global health or how one infectious agent transfers from one to another. I study how global health issues are governed by the international community, so that’s where international relations kicks in. My research focuses especially on how non-state actors—agents other than government like civil society organizations or multinational corporations, or even the United Nations—are sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating to address many different global health issues. Probably right now COVID-19 is the easiest example to understand.
Q: How did you get into it? Have you been interested in it since you were in middle school or something like that?
A: There is a story. I did my undergrad in sociology, so I was not in the field that I’m studying right now. When I finished my undergrad, well I always liked to do study or research, so I also considered going to grad school, but at the same time, while I didn’t have money to pay for that, and I also felt that working in some private sector for a few years would be good, because that’s [working for an organization is kind of a mainstream of society].
So I got a job in a very big multinational company in the healthcare sector. I think it’s okay to say the name, I worked for Johnson & Johnson—that’s one of the vaccine producers of COVID. I was selling medical products for medical doctors, and that job was not really a good fit for me. Because that really brought me moral conflicts, in my mind—that on one hand I have to sell the product, and those products were not really good ones, but still I have to promote them, because that’s my job, but at the same time I could sometimes see, for instance, the patient’s family waiting outside of the surgery room with anxious faces, and I walked in front of them and [went] into the surgery room and asked the doctor, “Hey, can you please use our products?”
Mentally, I couldn’t accept that, and I came to wonder, I was working for a big company and the company says we are contributing to the health of the world. But is it really the case? I came to wonder how come it is allowed to aggressively sell not-so-good products. It’s not illegal for sure, but how can we manage that kind of conflict between the logic of the market and really good things like improving human health?
That’s kind of the starting point of my current research. I came to wonder, for instance, how international regulation deals with multinational corporations’ activities in the health sector, and how, if those multinational corporations are so powerful, how do they affect international policy-making. Like the World Health Organization’s [policies] certainly are affected by multinational corporations, sometimes. So, I came to be interested in that kind of topic and then I quit the job and started my grad school.
Q: In terms of adapting to Yale-NUS, one thing that is for sure memorable is the announcement regarding the merger of the College. What was your immediate feeling when this announcement was made? Were you angry, sad, or upset?
A: Upset, probably. It took me a while to understand what’s happening to me. It’s really because the announcement was made on Zoom, and I was by myself in my room, and if the announcement was made in the performance hall and other people are sitting besides me, I could kind of sense, oh, okay, this is really bad, people are angry and should I get angry, that kind of cue. But I was by myself and so I was like “oh, what does that mean…” So I got pumped and was trying to understand what’s going on.
Q: Choosing to be a professor at Yale-NUS, what does a liberal arts education mean to you?
A: I think it’s a place to open up your mind and eyes to various possibilities, and it’s a very invaluable time for students to think about what you can be for the rest of your life. You can change, as you will learn and get familiarized with different fields of study. And it’s not only about academic life, it’s more about human development. I’m not from a liberal arts college, so that’s kind of my take, as a newcomer to this environment.
Q: Now we can move on to some fun questions. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you ever see yourself being a professor?
A: No. I never imagined being a professor. Well, when I was a child I didn’t even know there was such a profession. I think my first dream job was… what’s the English term… someone who makes a book for children, like the drawing kind of book, because as a kid everyone liked drawing and also kind of thinking some stupid stories (laugh).
Q: Coffee or tea?
A: Green tea, any kind of Japanese green tea. And also I like Taiwanese/Chinese green tea, oolong tea. I like coffee too. When I started my PhD I overloaded coffee on my nervous system and I got a bad stomach so I decided not to have too much coffee and I [switched] to tea, and honestly tea tastes better and may be better for my nerves.
Q: If you have a time machine, would you go back or would you go to the future?
A: Go back. Well, there are several reasons, one is that, probably it’s good not to see what’s gonna happen in the future, for better or worse, it’s gonna ruin my experience, so I don’t need to see what’s going to happen to me or to the world in the future. There might be no world… (laugh)
Another thing, I like history, I like cultural stuff as well, I’m interested in knowing how all the things that we’re enjoying right now came about. It’s maybe scary, but at the same time it [would] be fun to travel back in time.
Q: Do you like oceans better or mountains better?
A: Oceans. Maybe it’s because I am from Metropolitan Tokyo area in Japan, but I’m not from the “Tokyo Tokyo” area (not downtown Tokyo), [where I’m from] is like landlocked, so I didn’t have access to the ocean when I was a kid. I was so jealous of other people, because Japan is an island, everyone has easy access to the ocean, but I didn’t, so I was so jealous, and probably that made [me prefer] living by the ocean.
The Octant, in a conversation with Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, discusses the commitments of staff and faculty to create an authentic experience for the Class of 2025 at Yale-NUS College.
Story | Kriti Andhare (she/her), Contributing Writer Photo | Tan Shan Min, Managing Design Editor (she/her)
Yale-NUS College hopes to expand opportunities for students to benefit from programs like summer study abroad, Prof. Roberts told The Octant in an interview.
When questioned about what her benchmarks would be for maintaining a full Yale-NUS experience, Roberts announced a host of measures to consolidate the Yale-NUS experience in the final years of the college, including, but not limited to, a commitment to offer a full range of courses until 2025, an increased number of spots for Yale summer sessions and semesters abroad, and guaranteed housing for all Yale-NUS students, regardless of year group, LOA, or DDP status.
With the announcement of the merger, members of the Class of ‘25 voiced their fears about losing the unique opportunities and experiences offered by the College.
These fears had only been exacerbated by the recent cancellation of Week 7Learning Across Boundaries programs (LABs) — faculty-led experiential learning projects of short duration — due to heightened COVID-19 restrictions in Singapore. The program was also waived as a graduation requirement.
Speaking further to the college’s commitment to ensuring the final batches enjoy financial security, Roberts stated the following:
“We’ve locked in everyone’s financial aid for all four years. And that means that we’re fully committed to everyone’s financial aid at the level it’s at. If anyone has a change to their situation, of course, we can always reconsider. But it means that no one’s financial aid will be trimmed, going forward.”
Roberts also announced an increase in study abroad slots at Yale. Exchange slots have been expanded to 30 per semester instead of the usual 16. Furthermore, 30 students will be sent to Yale for the summer session. CIPE and Roberts have also been working diligently to launch more research opportunities with Yale faculty for Yale-NUS students.
The Dean of Students office has been working on crafting LABs that will be offered to students after May.
Finally, speaking on the academic future of the College, Roberts reassured and re-emphasised her and Yale-NUS’s commitment to offering the full suite of majors, courses, and electives.
“Even if there are only four students in one majors left in ‘24 or ‘25, we intend to offer a full suite of electives for those people.”
Roberts reiterated that the governing board, Yale-NUS staff, and faculty remain committed to maintaining and providing to the Class of 2025 the full Yale-NUS experience.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Martin Choo (he/him)
Student representatives from Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme (USP) on the New College Working Groups (WGs) could not disclose details on their meetings and engage with students without prior approval from their respective WG Chairs, the Yale-NUS Student Government said in a statement to the student body on Wednesday (Oct. 27).
The statement said that student representatives were initially briefed to “observe confidentiality” during their first meetings, and were not allowed to disclose any information from the WG meetings.
Instead, the Communications WG would centralize the dissemination of information on the WG discussions to ensure “accuracy and competitive knowledge.”
Last week, the Yale-NUS WG student representatives sent a collective response to The Octant’s request for comments that they were unable to disseminate any information shared during the WG meetings. Separately, a USP student representative declined to comment.
Since the WGs convened their first meetings on Sept. 21, no information about the unnamed college has been shared to the student body on a specially-created blog or via other channels.
Red Tape or Confidentiality? Different Approaches For Each Working Group
The level of transparency and student engagement for each New College Working Group (WG) varies.
In a reply to students’ request for clarifications, Ho Teck Hua, Chair of the New College Planning Committee (NCPC) said the committee values the students’ perspectives. He added that the WG student representatives were not required to “collect feedback from students or carry out consultations with students,” unless the Chairs have requested or approved their specific proposal to seek feedback.
Referring to the parameters for consultation with the student body, the Provost said: “The Chairs of [the] WG can decide on this. In general, the matter for feedback or consultation should be broad without going into specific details, as these are work in progress.”
“This applies to all feedback/consultations as well as communications from the WGs. Chairs may also make requests for certain documents to be kept confidential.”
The WG Chairs, meanwhile, each gave different responses regarding their approaches to transparency and student engagement within their respective WGs.
Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS and Chair of the Faculty Appointments WG, told The Octant over email last Friday (Oct. 22) that their WG meetings involved discussions on “how to best support faculty through the transition process” while ensuring “continuity for our academic programs at the college.”
“The discussions in my WG often involve confidential matters like contracts, terms of appointments, as well as personal and professional plans. These are not issues that can be shared openly,” Prof. Tan added.
“I cannot speak for other Chairs, as they will lead the communications portions of their respective WGs and are free to share and update the relevant communities as they wish.”
Speaking only for the WGs she sits in, Joanne Roberts, Chair of the Common Curriculum WG, said in an email earlier this week: “In the WGs I sit in, students are playing a crucial role. They have been sharing their own views and gathering from their peers.”
There have not been “unusual restrictions” on what they can discuss, she added.
Specific to the Common Curriculum WG, Emily Tan ‘23 and Morgane (Dasha) Ropion ‘22, Yale-NUS student representatives on the WG, confirmed that they were allowed to share and gather information so long as they did not disseminate confidential working documents.
Roberts said that confidentiality requirements were “normal” in these kinds of planning committees.
“Normally you’d ask the Chair: ‘I’d like to consult students about this, is it okay?’ In which case, the Chair would normally say yes. I don’t know if that’s particularly limiting.”
“I haven’t done that in my committee. I’ve sort of trusted people on my committee that they’re not going to share things that are counterproductive or gratuitous,” she added.
Meanwhile, Koh Yan Leng, Vice President (Campus Infrastructure) of NUS and Chair of the Facilities Management WG, redirected The Octant’s emails to the Communications WG.
The other Chairs—including Ovidia Lim-Rajaram, Chair of the Communications WG—have not responded to The Octant’s request for information a week ago about the WGs at press time.
Basic Course Structure, “Big Decisions” Ready by December
Roberts said she was not able to share the draft of the New College curriculum “before the Provost confirms it is ready to be shared in all its detail.”
When asked whether she had to receive permission from the Provost before sharing information, Roberts said: “I could probably share if I wanted to. But ideally it should be shared with Yale-NUS and USP students at the same time since both have given valuable inputs. Also, it might not be helpful to have unfinalized information in circulation, which might be confusing.”
She only shared the basic structure of the planned New College curriculum, which would involve “common courses” and “elective courses,” including Quantitative Reasoning and writing courses. She would avoid sharing the rest of the plan while it was still “so preliminary,” she said.
The Common Curriculum WG aims to finish its planning by the end of the semester, before the winter break in December, she added.
There were four meetings planned for the Student and Residential Life WG before the winter break in December, with each meeting lasting one or two hours, according to Dave Stanfield, Yale-NUS Dean of Students and member of the WG.
Cory Owen, Associate Dean of Students and member of the Facilities Management WG, said there were six meetings planned for her WG before the end of December.
She explained that the NCPC had to make the “big decisions” by the end of the year before the admissions cycle for the new batch of New College students begins.
Stanfield commented: “The timeline is quick, because they’re going to start recruiting students. They have to be fast.”
Meanwhile, Roberts assured that despite the quick timeline, she was confident that a “strong” curriculum could be developed soon, because her WG has “worked really efficiently” and because there were already “strong foundations” in the Yale-NUS and USP curricula.
She added: “When we come to August, it’s only the first year of the common curriculum that you have to have ready to be offered. You don’t even have to have everything ready, as long as you know what it all is and have a sense of it.”
The only modes of engagement with the Yale-NUS and USP student bodies thus far have been channels initiated by some WG student representatives, following approval from their respective WG Chairs.
On Oct. 11 and 12, Yale-NUS student representatives from the Student and Residential Life WG and the NCPC, respectively, held open forums with the student body. Only five and six students turned up for the open forums with the Student and Residential Life WG and the NCPC, respectively.
The Yale-NUS student representatives from the Student and Residential Life WG have also initiated three surveys asking for feedback from the student body.
Meanwhile, there have been a number of engagement efforts by USP student representatives across all the WGs with the USP student body, through discussion sessions and informal chat groups.
Angela Hoten ‘23, who attended both Yale-NUS open forums, was unsure of their effectiveness given the lack of transparency in the WGs.
She said: “Student representatives appear to have to comply with these ambiguous confidentiality clauses and that puts them in a position where they can’t inform the student body of what is happening in these WG discussions and what is being decided for New College. How is that any different from the ways that we got here?”
“These WGs need to allow student representatives to share the minutes and decisions made in these WGs, and also give ample time for student representatives to gather the necessary details they need to provide a strong case for the programmes we have at Yale-NUS.”
Promises and Commitments
While setting up the New College, student opinions are important and consultations will take place, NUS Management previously promised. Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS, said in a town hall late last month: “I don’t think that students should have the final say, but I think that the community should have an important say.”
Similarly, Ho promised in an email to all NUS faculty, staff, and students in October: “Together, the Planning Committee and WGs will develop a collaborative, consultative, and open approach that will steer the New College into the future.”
Ho also said in a September town hall with parents of Yale-NUS and USP students: “We’ll get input from everybody. I’m optimistic that the New College will do really well because, from day one, we consult everybody.”
Previously in September, Roberts told The Octant that she would commit to continuing to “consult with students, to share openly, and to do our best in Yale-NUS” during the planning process of the New College, and to “push for openness and communication” with the NUS management.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Graphics | Ryan Yeo
The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) had the highest enrollment by Yale-NUS College students among all NUS faculties over the last five semesters, according to statistics provided by Yale-NUS Registry.
There have been a total of 729 enrollments by Yale-NUS students in NUS modules since the first semester of Academic Year 2019/2020. FASS modules proved the most popular, comprising 61% of all NUS module enrollments. This figure includes the 17% of modules taken at the Centre for Language Studies (CLS).
The next most popular NUS faculty among Yale-NUS students was the Faculty of Science, which comprised 11% of all NUS module enrollments.
According to Yale-NUS Registry, the data are accurate at the end of instructional week 2 of each semester, and exclude NUS Faculty of Law modules read by Yale-NUS students in the Double Degree Programme.
Other NUS modules that Yale-NUS students have studied also include those from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (6%), NUS Business School (6%), and the School of Computing (3%). These faculties do not have directly equivalent departments in Yale-NUS.
These data were released following the Sept. 28 students’ town hall, where Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS, speculated that the most popular NUS modules among Yale-NUS students would come from the School of Computing and the Business School.
This month, The Octant invited several students from the Class of 2025 to a conversation focused on their discovery of happiness and strength in the Yale-NUS community. As can be seen in the class Telegram chat, appropriately named “The Last Class of Yale-NUS,” the freshmen have been hit hard by the closure of Yale-NUS. The faith they’ve placed in the exciting possibilities a new chapter at Yale-NUS offers is being challenged in ways unprecedented and entire, but also right at the beginning of their time here, before emotions transcend memories and friendships forge meaning.
In light of this, The Octant presents a collection of the youngest Kingfishers’ happiest little moments as well as their self-reflections on the navigation of college life so far. They strive to seek and sustain what they have, knowing that they have a long way to go.
Name: Wang Shi Hui Jeanette
What’s your life philosophy?: “Always put in the best effort!”
Despite having a few worries here and there before arriving on campus—a general fear of making friends as a semi-introvert, the uncertainty of community and classroom interaction during COVID, and her aunt’s lingering comments on Yale-NUS’s competitiveness—Jeanette opened up about her favorite moment on campus in the past month or so that revealed to her the supportive environment at Yale-NUS:
“My spirits were a bit low that day… so I went to see Gohan (Cendana College’s favorite doggo!), alone, and there were a lot of people I didn’t know, a lot of seniors, and we just ended up talking together: about future employment, emotional attachments, a loss of identity perhaps, just releasing stress.”
Jeanette mentioned how she was surprised that the seniors seemed to care more about the impact of the news on her and the freshies, being attentive towards her emotions and response to the town hall announcement. “It really shows that the support system is there.”
She continued to talk about other aspects of college life that inspired her. The energetic class discussions made her less afraid to engage with others’ opinions. “I come out of class feeling super enriched and content. It was much more interactive than I imagined.” Relating her sentiments on the class dynamic to Yale-NUS’s interdisciplinary education, Jeanette gave a few examples:
“You start to realize all the courses are interrelated, from LitHum, CSI, PPT, to even QR, like how the analysis of Ramayana from LitHum is related to the methods of interpretation in Bhagavad-Gita from PPT. In QR, you unpack statistics and relate it to a wider social context… that’s what interdisciplinary is.”
Admitted under the Duke-NUS Medical School pathway, she presented her unique perspective on the liberal arts and humanities education at Yale-NUS:
“[I have] a more science-heavy background. Being at Yale-NUS helps create a more holistic education for me. Thinking back on what my philosopher professor once said: patients give us life stories, and as a doctor, we need to fully understand the patient as a whole, and not just by the symptom. That really stuck with me. The entire reason I entered Yale-NUS was to keep in touch with the humanities, because medicine itself is an art, it is interdisciplinary. You work with so many other specialties, and you interact with humans. In the words of LitHum, it celebrates humanity.”
When asked about some of her pillars of strengths in the face of recent town hall announcements, Jeanette shared spontaneous moments of life with her suitemates:
“I think my suitemates [are] all just clowns. I think one day our neighbors are going to complain they’re hearing too many screams. They make me laugh everyday, and they just remind me that we’re in this together.”
She also talked about the safe space her Residential College Advisor (RCA) created with baked cookies and one-on-one talks when some of them faced academic stress:
“My RCA reminds me that it’s an ungraded semester. Don’t let grades get the better of you, because that’s not really why we’re here. You’re here to learn—everyone is a philosopher.”
For her, the support system is both a source of happiness and what builds resilience. She talks about how her view of community support developed through the town hall announcement:
“The social support network is really dependent on the individuals within this larger community, so if we all work together to evolve, adapt, and change with what is happening, we can change for the better.”
Like many other first-years, she sheds light on a communal mindset of positivity in the face of the challenging news:
“Although it [Yale-NUS] physically won’t exist, it definitely still exists within us. We are the students, the ones that make up the content. I think that’s what we are. I remember my CSI professor, Prof. Benjamin, saying: ‘We are the ones who create and write history.’ We are writing history right now.”
What’s your life philosophy?: “To be a saint is an exception, to be an upright man is the rule” — Victor Hugo
For Avery, there was almost too much to love about Yale-NUS. Sometimes, it was the little moments that stole her heart: the “how are you doing” from schoolmates in the courtyard, a small interaction that Avery felt was “super heartwarming!”; her RCA’s gentle reminder to not share anything they weren’t comfortable with during their first RCA meeting; holding casual conversations with the Dean of Students in the Residential Colleges “like real family”; and the fruitful conversation with her professor, where a “Eureka” moment struck as her professor passionately introduced her own research.
More often, it was the general excitement of starting college in a culturally unique and academically excellent liberal arts institution. Avery said: “It’s this whole bustling experience, fully residential, where life and the community joins as one. There’s something that makes you happy happening everyday, and I look forward to the unexpected happiness everyday.”
She painted her happy memory with words: “It was during orientation, and my RCA group went to Saga College’s board game night at the Common Lounge. We stayed up till midnight playing board games. It was not outstanding in any way, but just a really peaceful memory with friends, chilling, chatting, and there was a breeze. We were doing things together, and it felt the best.”
In her recollections, Avery talked extensively about the sense of a safe space being created at Yale-NUS. Coming from a high school where toxic competitiveness floated in the air, Avery was struck by the space Yale-NUS community members held for each other.
“No one will force things, not even implicitly… [Everyone] is so sensitive and soothing,” she explained. “I’m kind of a shy and private person. But in this community, no one derides differences. I don’t have to feel judged. I don’t have to constantly second-guess whether I am close enough to someone else. I feel safe to go to them, I might feel safe being friends with a thousand-plus people here.”
After all, Avery said: “How can you not feel safe being here, with people that understand respect?”
She also mentioned how residential life plays a big part in the cultivation of deep connections, where her friend walked all the way from Cendana to Saga and back to talk her through the post-town hall trauma, or how she easily made friends with others at an event: “We both came out for a breath of fresh air, and just like that we’re friends already. It’s the magic of the community.”
For Avery, the safe space, or “the magic,” existed also in Yale-NUS’s academic structures, such as the replacement of rigid dissertations with an individual capstone project for graduation requirements, the ungraded first semester to allow a graceful transition, and the interactive seminar discussions. “It’s symbolic of the college telling us our opinion matters. Engagement and personalization is important for me.”
In relation to her response to the town hall announcement, Avery reaffirmed the uniqueness of the safe feeling Yale-NUS gave her:
“I was looking for other transfer options, and looking at the variety of colleges avaliable, I just didn’t feel anything else could be like Yale-NUS. I really treasure meeting new people with completely different lives. Our previous environments were different, but once coming here, we are strong as one, we are reassured because we exist in this space together.”
Name: Safinah Barvin
Age: 24 (post-JC and Poly)
A fun fact about yourself?: “I was a part of Singapore’s NDP Marching Contingent.”
For Safinah, making it to college was a moment of celebration. Emotions of happiness and gratitude were embedded in a single moment during the candlelight ceremony during Orientation.
“I remember looking around and feeling so happy because I finally made it to university, I finally made it to a place where I can be myself. Seeing the beautiful campus that it is—it’s so much greenery! I just thought that maybe it was worth all the effort I took, like, okay, this is it, all my effort was for this wonderful moment, and for the amazing four years to come.”
She explained how college also meant a sense of freedom for her. “Yale-NUS’s residential program has really given me time to explore myself. When I’m at home, I’m surrounded by my family members, my parents, my nieces, and I still have a curfew, despite being 24 years old. When I’m alone in my room at Yale-NUS, I am able to reflect what my personality really is. And being away from my family made me realize how dependent I am on them. It’s a part of the rediscovery.”
On what the Yale-NUS community meant for her, Safinah took a similar perspective with Avery: feeling safe.
“What I really, really love about Yale-NUS is that I can just be myself. When I was at other schools [Safinah has studied previously at both Junior College and Polytechnic], I think I always felt like a minority, and I always had to be cautious of what I said and what I did and whether I would face racism… but here, I’m not the only minority, at all. This place is where you can be yourself, free of judgement. And everyone’s just so sweet and nice.”
For Safinah, the safe community comes from the kindness and understanding of the people. In her experience at other schools, she often wondered: “Oh, will I be the odd one out?”
She explains: “I think even in secondary schools, you can at least see three or four people who are like me, but in [other] universities, especially the course I specifically chose, I knew that there would be a very high chance that I would be alone.”
Laughing, she continued: “I think people who come here are just nice people; I don’t know how the admissions team manages to choose students who are just so nice… here, people are aware of other’s different experiences because we all come from different backgrounds, so we know how it should be.”
She talked about how she first felt safe during the application process.
“The admission process itself, instead of only judging you by your grades, asks you to talk about yourself and your interests… It’s like they’re saying: ‘Hey, I see that you’re this holistic human being and that’s great, we want to know more of you and what you’ll bring to the community here.’ I started realizing what I’m able to share with the world. So I guess from that moment itself, I started feeling safe.”
Now at Yale-NUS, she is grateful for the safe community in terms of an ungraded semester and a vibrant social landscape.
“[Yale-NUS] is different because we’re allowed to explore. I am able to enjoy my first-year classes more since I’m just trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible without worrying about whether it will affect my final CAP.”
Coming from banking and finance background, Safinah explained how the ungraded semester allowed her to truly enjoy a liberal arts education, as well as try out the various social events Yale-NUS offers.
“In high school I go to school from 8 am to 5 pm. I don’t think I was given many opportunities like the Rector’s Tea where we invite people to share their life experiences. And the mooncake making sessions—such activities allow me to learn from others, and in that process I learn more about myself too.”
Participating in a variety of student organizations opened Safinah to a wide range of passions too: “It’s a good break from studying! I enjoyed Bollybhangra; they’re so welcoming and really accepting of newbies. I even joined Oasis, and tried contemporary dance for the very first time. I think I had the space to even try because Yale-NUS nurtures you to explore. And so I really discovered more about myself and my potential.”
Aside from the school, she is also thankful for the sweetest suitemates that help cultivate a safe space for her, informing her in advance whenever a male would be coming into the suite so she could put on her hijab and always remembering to order her non-alcoholic drinks when going out.
Name: Mohammad Dabeer Ahmed
What’s your life philosophy?: “Two things: first, to be kind, humble and grateful; second, because life is unpredictable, finding happiness in the little things.”
As an online student this semester, Dabeer admitted feeling distanced from the community at times.
“The biggest challenge is probably a lack of social life. I know I need to meet new people, it’s just been the same people from high school that I’ve been interacting with [due to online restrictions]. I haven’t been able to join a lot of clubs [since] not a lot are going hybrid.”
Dabeer hasn’t been able to attend school physically since 2020. With abrupt news overflowing, both post-town hall and in his personal life, Dabeer says: “It’s been draining for someone who hasn’t been to school in 18 months. Sometimes it just feels like bad news over bad news. Every day you get something sad.”
He explains the difficulty of learning through a screen for him: “I love stress, but in [the form of] physical work, you know. For my high school orientation, we attended classes for two days without sleeping, but I was fine even under the intense pressure because I was with people; I was physically going out and about.”
However, Dabeer shares his optimism and open-minded life philosophy towards the unusual and chaotic situation of undergoing the town hall announcement and the cancellation of Week 7 online.
“I really think everything in life happens for a reason, and I know I’ll be there in person someday, if not tomorrow,” he says. “It’s important to give the situation the benefit of doubt. I think that even if I had been on campus, how I would feel and how things would have been might not be too different.”
Dabeer’s own unique experiences have brought about a mindset of positivity. Shifting between four schools in four years and having lived in the UAE for 13 years and Pakistan for eight years, he has come to realize that “the people are what matters, not the place.”
The people, like for many other freshmen, are what Dabeer finds a lot of his happiness in at Yale-NUS. “I’m South Asian by ethnicity, and my online classes consist of a lot of South Asian kids, from places like India and Pakistan. It’s like what we talked about in CSI. I guess humans have tendencies to approve of one group over another. I think I would’ve bonded most with my people.”
He talked about a specific moment where his professor pronounced his and his friends’ names wrong. “We found it to be a sort of bonding moment. Sometimes we chill and talk in our own language in breakout rooms, and that makes online classes more bearable.”
However, Dabeer goes on to say, “The reason I came is because of diversity, as far as my identity is concerned,” referring to the diversity that Yale-NUS and, in a larger context, Singapore, delivers.
Dabeer is also grateful for the kindness and accomodation his professors have shown him. “I love my profs. My CSI prof allowed me to submit my paper three days after the deadline with the whole internet situation. My PPT prof took an entire 120 minute seminar just to address the questions on the town hall announcement… it’s nice to have someone to talk about it and provide that safe space.”
Despite some disconnections, Dabeer is confident in his adaptability. Looking forward to reuniting with his Pakistani friends on campus, Dabeer says: “I have faith in how I’ll make the best of my life once I arrive on campus. That’s what matters.”
Story | Benjamin Goh (he/him), Guest Writer Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
What is it that leaders do? And how do leaders do it?
I have been reflecting upon these two questions since the announcement of the closure of Yale-NUS College on August 27, 2021. In the extensive media coverage since then, we have seen different information, some of which contradict each other, from Yale, Singapore’s Ministry of Education, and the National University of Singapore (NUS). We have seen multiple op-eds about what this closure means for Singapore, for Asia, and for the world.
However, in this piece, I seek to address the less examined brand of leadership employed in the management of this closure. Since the town hall that Tan Eng Chye, President of NUS, held with Yale-NUS students on September 28, 2021, I have gained a better understanding of how NUS leadership conceptualizes their leadership praxis: theirs is a leadership that seeks to inform rather than consult.
When Tan stated that he consulted stakeholders, he actually meant that he informed them. If Tan wishes to debate the semantics of whether the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is a merger or not, despite the on-the-ground perception that it is a merger, then we can and should debate the semantics of consulting versus informing. We can and we should also debate on when this consulting happens, because there is a meaningful difference in whether consulting happens before or after the decision is made. In leadership, how individuals perceive your actions is just as, if not more, important than any actual statements.
This piece comprises three sections. Section One defines the differences between consulting and informing. Section Two explains why NUS’s leadership style, as demonstrated in their management of the closure of Yale-NUS and the University Scholars Programme (USP), has not been a consultative one. Section Three argues that NUS’s leadership style will be detrimental to the experiences students have and the trust stakeholders have in NUS.
NUS leadership has much to do to repair the trust deficit with their stakeholders before they can even begin the long and arduous task of winning over students.
1. Two leadership styles: consulting and informing
There are two key differences between a leadership style that consults and one that informs: consulting creates space for agency and innovation, while informing does not.
Consulting aims to create consensus, and if not consensus, then a stake in the development of the matter. It is not strictly “bottom-up” in that it can be initiated from the top, but it is certainly people-oriented.
In contrast, informing creates no space for agency nor innovation. It is instead aimed at information provision—in essence, telling people that a decision will happen and that it has already been made. It is thus not aimed at giving stakeholders a stake in the matter, because there is no point in further discussion, given that the decision has already been made.
Critically, informing can only be “top-down” because individuals from the bottom up cannot affect decisions in this manner. It is thus oriented towards efficiency rather than people. Informing entails neither understanding the views of the people impacted nor understanding their concerns and anxieties. It is not intended to understand their aspirations and hopes. Informing affords no space for co-creation.
To be fair, different circumstances call for different forms of leadership: the metric I use for deciding which circumstances calls for a leadership style that focuses on informing is in which the outcome is one of life or death. If the final product is not one that creates a life-or-death situation, then there is time to consult. There is time to understand the perspectives of the stakeholders.
This is, I believe, the reason why Tan was unable to articulate why the students of Yale-NUS, and indeed elsewhere in NUS, are upset with this and other such top-down decisions. Empathy is and should always be an integral part of leadership. We are ready for a brand of consultative leadership where leaders and those they lead work together to co-create a brighter future for their community.
2. Why consultative leadership?
What do the metrics of agency and consulting mean for higher education and our understanding of leadership? Agency is created when stakeholders are given the ability to vocalize their ideas, which are valuable to the creation of the final product. It means that people are given the capacity to contribute to the decision-making process. This is important because agency creates a sense of ownership, of wanting the project to succeed.
One might argue that the Yale-NUS “experiment” succeeded precisely because it demonstrated the benefits of affording agency. It is because the founders, faculty, students, staff, and parents were able to exercise agency, that the college is what it is today—a community of learning, in Asia, for the world. Ownership creates a sense of responsibility, not just to the institution, but to the community and each other.
As Robin Zheng, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, eloquently elucidated in a webinar on liberal education in Singapore, students in a Yale-NUS classroom speak and contribute to class discussion because they are accountable to each other for their learning. This is how we create productive spaces for conversation.
By endowing each student with a sense of ownership, we are encouraged to take pride in what we do. Thus we strive to do better for each other.
Conversely, leadership that merely seeks to inform creates no space for ownership; there is no reason why anyone should seek to own something that could be destroyed without any notice. There is no reason why anyone would pour their heart into a project if they expect to experience intense grief and heartbreak when it ends without their input. This is a world where there is little to no pride in the institution’s achievements. This is a world that diminishes community learning. Why would students fill in surveys or participate in curriculum reviews if they don’t feel a sense of ownership over the matter? Not creating space for agency reduces ownership and creates a worse outcome for the NUS community.
More than just agency and ownership, consulting creates space for innovation. We are all individuals with different lived academic experiences. Each of us brings something different to the table. This creates the potential to innovate something new and different, which could add value to the experience.
For example, if my suitemates and I were consulted as to what we thought the best part of the Yale-NUS experience is, we would not have said the Common Curriculum. I remember long anxious nights over Scientific Inquiry and the heavy reading load of Modern Social Thought.
We would have pointed to our informal curriculum, such as the innovations in the residential curriculum that ensure that students are educated in areas such as intercultural engagement. We would have pointed to our commitment to diversability, such as in educating students about the various learning accommodations that they could seek during Orientation or RCA group sessions through the year. We would have pointed to distinctive programs like Diversity Week and Mental Health Week. We would have pointed to innovations such as Assistant Dean Notes.
At the time of writing, the only thing of value NUS leadership sees in Yale-NUS is its formal curriculum. Yet if we had been consulted, we could have innovated ways of integrating aspects of our informal curriculum into the formal one.
For example, we could have suggested “brave space” guidelines, like the one I designed with faculty in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), into the formal curriculum. These guidelines, such as allowing students to take a time-out if they feel overwhelmed by class materials, or a commitment to critically examining ideas without engaging in personal attacks, are important to create spaces for students and faculty to feel safe enough to discuss topics that could be controversial. Without these guidelines, students may very well not participate in class discussions because they may feel attacked or too overwhelmed to do so.
“Brave spaces” create space for conversation in the classroom, and create space for students to feel safe to discuss even controversial topics. We could have integrated learning accommodations for students like myself who have a hearing condition. We could have discussed how to integrate mental health support into the syllabus so that students know who to turn to if they require support. Despite having taken seven NUS classes across three departments at both the undergraduate and graduate level, I have never seen an NUS syllabus that notes the importance of mental health and the support one could get for it.
These things seem marginal to most people, but it matters to the university environment that is created. If students do not feel safe to speak up in class, they will not, and professors will need to think harder about how to get students to contribute to discussions, often by offering crass incentives like class participation points that invite superficial responses that do not go into the heart of the matter.
Learning accommodations help not just those who require the accommodation but those who don’t as well. Closed captioning, for instance, benefits visual learners. Using a microphone in large classrooms benefits auditory learners. And knowing who to turn to for support matters in life-and-death situations. Knowing that your professors prioritize your mental health allows you to trust that professors care for you, rather than merely being research-generating machines.
These are all innovations that we could have brought to the table to benefit the NUS community. Innovation is key insofar as we want to progress beyond one static position. However, without a sense of ownership and without discussion, innovation cannot take place. The outcome, then, is miserable for all stakeholders. The opportunities to improve are limited, and the institution’s ability to grow for the better is hampered.
In response to claims that he did not consult the relevant parties sufficiently, Tan noted that he had in fact consulted “every faculty in each of the departments at FOS and FASS” about CHS. Apart from this being empirically untrue, speaking from the experience of having worked with faculty members who had little knowledge about CHS and had to redo their plans for a module despite having planned the module from as early as March 2021, the timing of this consultation matters too.
If one consults after the decision has been made, is there really space for agency and innovation? One might ask: if you get to contribute to these student committees, is that not agency? But is it really agency and ownership if the boundaries of these committees have already been drawn? By virtue of the decision having already been made, even if there is space for autonomy and innovation, the space is limited by design.
This strategy entraps people within predefined boundaries, with little to no space to conceptualize something different. It is not enough to attempt to win over stakeholders after the decision has been made. It is equally, if not more, important that winning over stakeholders happens even before the decision has been made. Would it not be a more prudent use of resources to win over students from the start, and not only after the fact when opinions have already been made?
This is at the heart of the #NoMoreTopDown petition which was dismissed because it reported what people on the ground feel about CHS, as opposed to what it was claimed to be by the administration. In fact, I would argue that the reason why students in FASS believe that CHS is a merger and not a “virtual college”—a term never used in press releases, the CHS undergraduate admission brochure, or viewbook—is because they were informed of the decision and were not consulted. If students had been consulted, perhaps they would better understand what NUS leadership sought to achieve with CHS.
Yet, because they were informed of a new common curriculum combining FASS and FOS subjects—one that took effect a year later and is still in the midst of being worked out—it appears as a merger to them, and rightly so. NUS may not intend for it to be a merger, but if it looks like a merger, sounds like a merger, and is presented as a merger, it is a merger.
Consulting after the fact is no different from not consulting at all, as the boundaries have already been drawn. If we are serious about interdisciplinary learning that seeks to go beyond the boundaries of formal disciplines, then we should be conscious of the boundaries we are drawing.
To be clear, I am not positing that we should accept every single thing that is proposed in consultations. This is simply impossible. Instead, I am arguing that it matters that people are at least given a chance to speak on the subject for two reasons.
Firstly, it creates space for agency and a sense of ownership. Even if people do not agree with the final outcome, they take pride in the fact that they were consulted and can come to terms with it. There is thus some incentive to accept the new system. Comparatively, absent consultation, there is no reason to feel a sense of ownership.
Secondly, it creates space for innovation. It is through discussion that people innovate new ideas that could be better for the community. In the absence of consultation, individuals are disincentivized from engagement and innovation.
These two reasons do not require all opinions to be accepted. It merely requires that individuals are empowered to speak up and to contribute. Apathy exists when individuals have no incentive to care. Apathy hence exists when leaders only seek to inform, and not consult, on matters that do not result in life or death.
3. Current leadership style at NUS is detrimental to student experiences
The town hall with Yale-NUS students revealed that the NUS School of Computing and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (YST) will also come under this new curriculum structure, with the expectation that students would pursue a double major. I leave the evaluation of the rightness of this decision to the educational experts. In effect, NUS leadership is making the decision to combine the educational experiences of those who are not pursuing a professional degree and those who are into a common experience, despite the ostensibly different components of each degree. Music students, for instance, would require more time to engage in composition and rehearsals than the average FASS or Yale-NUS student.
What is of importance is that this is the first time this has been confirmed. While potentially beneficial, I am left to wonder how Computing students who regularly complain on Reddit about the difficulties of computing modules, and YST students who have to juggle a wide range of modules and performance rehearsals, feel about this? How would this add to their academic load and stress? Mental health matters and is important, said Tan in the recent town hall with students—yet this decision seems to disregard the potential stresses it would cause.
We were told that students only see things from one perspective. Putting aside the condescending language, is this perspective not important? What is the point of designing a top-notch curriculum if students are too stressed to learn from it? Learning is not merely receiving knowledge, but is also about reflecting on that knowledge and using it to do more. When students have more courses to do, with the workload remaining the same for their other classes, one wonders where students would find the time to learn?
This is not to say we should only hear from students. We should hear from a diversity of voices, including students, because it is only when we hear from multiple perspectives that we have a fuller picture of the implications and impacts of our policies. Such a style of leadership diminishes the student experience insofar as students are unable to advocate for themselves.
More than diminishing the experience of students, however, such a style of leadership engenders a spirit of distrust in the institution of NUS. If decisions can be made behind the scenes with little consultation, what grounds do students have to trust that NUS would live up to its promises? What grounds do students have to trust that their well being would be cared for? A style of leadership that only informs breeds a spirit of distrust because the perennial question would be: who watches the watchmen? Trust is built over time but squandered overnight. If we want to create ownership and innovation, we must have trust in the institution—otherwise, what would the incentive be to engage in such actions?
For the administration to even begin to win over the hearts and minds of students, students must first trust the university administration. Even before NUS can try to convince students of the benefits of the closures, they must first convince students that NUS has their best interests at heart. This will take time—valuable time that could have been used to improve the curriculum and student life experience. Time that could have been saved had NUS chosen to consult with students before the decision was made.
In the town hall, Tan articulated that the trade-off in this decision was between closing Yale-NUS now, and a diminished Yale-NUS experience and its eventual demise anyway because the gap in funding could not be plugged. Hence, he argues, closing two distinctive and excellent programs is the only solution that could be undertaken. Putting aside the lack of structural analysis as to why the gap in funding could not be plugged even when asked by students, and the fact that Tan conceded that Yale was willing to assist with fundraising, I would like to highlight a different set of trade-offs—a set that I opine is not worth trading off.
First, NUS is trading off a sense of ownership. NUS is trading off the pride students would have in building a community of learning in NUS, one that everyone could be proud of, for mere efficiency in decision-making.
Second, NUS is trading off potential innovation that could make the final product significantly better. How can we know what “good” is when only one person or planning committee determines it? When more people share their idea of how we can do better, it is the community and the institution that benefit.
Third, NUS is trading off the trust of its stakeholders. For a program to be successful, it is not enough to say that it will be successful. Stakeholders have to be persuaded that it will be successful, and persuasion is not an equation that is logical and rational.
Indeed, humans are not wholly rationally-driven creatures. We can sometimes be influenced by beliefs that are seemingly illogical and irrational. Beliefs such as not believing that the institution has the best interest of the stakeholders at heart.
Actions say more than words, and it is not enough for institutions and leaders to say “trust us.” They must demonstrate through actions that they are worth trusting. They must put their money where their mouth is. Otherwise, they will lose trust. These three goods—ownership, innovation, and trust— seem objectively more important to retain. The style of leadership undertaken has implications beyond just one community—it affects the institution as well.
There is an African adage that goes along the lines of: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” On the road ahead, we need to ask ourselves: what do we value more? Speed? Or distance? We also need to ask ourselves: what is on that road ahead? Where is our final intended destination? What are our aspirations for the institution? How can we turn these aspirations into reality?
In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, changing, and ambiguous, leaders do better when they consult, listen to, and consider a diversity of perspectives, not just those they want to listen to. Professor Tommy Koh spoke of “loving critics” and I think that’s what we, the students resisting the closure of Yale-NUS and USP in our own ways, are. We resist because we love our community, and we want NUS to do better than it is doing currently. The day we stop our resistance is the day we stop loving this institution. That, I think, will be the day that NUS has truly failed.
Tan spoke about winning over students on his vision. Intellectually, I could be persuaded to believe in his vision, but I have minimal faith in his leadership. If Tan could ignore consultation on an issue like this, I am left to fear what other major decisions Tan, or indeed other leaders in NUS, could make without consulting their stakeholders. There is no incentive for me, or any other student, to want to make New College a success when it could be closed overnight.
It is not enough to win students over. It is more important to demonstrate leadership by example and not by authority. That is how you win hearts and minds. That is how you build trust and ownership, and engender an environment where students are community builders.
Ultimately, it is not just where we go that matters. It is also how we get there.
The morning of Aug. 27 marked upheaval and confusion across NUS, when the formation of the New College and College of Design and Engineering (CDE) was officially announced by NUS.
The merger of Yale-NUS and the University Scholars Programme (USP) remains opaque: no information has been provided on the curriculum or faculty of the upcoming New College. Meanwhile, first-year students enrolled in the School of Design and Engineering (SDE) and the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) will start CDE’s common curriculum from Jan. 1, 2022; its content and requirements have been outlined here.
Students have expressed their frustrations with the mergers and their announcements through social media and the #NoMoreTopDown petition.
“Have you actually asked your friends and faculty members?” Prof. Tan said. “For every one that says no, I’m sure I can find 10 others that actually have the reverse experience.”
To learn about these decisions’ impact on students, The Octant separately interviewed five students across NUS faculties, who shared their reactions, thoughts, and criticisms concerning the mergers and their announcement.
Lack of clarity and transparency
All interviewed students hoped to receive clearer, less confusing information about the mergers from NUS.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” said Ken Bradley, a second-year Industrial Design student at SDE, whose juniors are set to take the CDE common curriculum next semester.
They later resorted to analogy to describe their confusion: “It feels like, you issue a skincare product, saying it’s gonna clear your skin, it’s gonna clear your skin, just insisting that it’s gonna clear your skin.”
“But the ingredients are not even on the packaging. So if you put it on—well, am I going to get a chemical burn? What’s going to happen? Or is this just water in a bottle?”
J, an ex-USP student now in her fourth year at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), though not acutely affected by the New College merger, had similar criticisms about its announcement by NUS. “It’s not specific,” she said.
“I know the rationale that they provided was because this is a very sensitive decision, which is why they didn’t involve people. But I guess from the point of view of a student, or any member of the public, there are just a lot of question marks as to what exactly was this sensitive decision-making process?”
She continued: “It would have been nice to speak to students and get their understanding of what they’re really looking for in an education or what’s useful for them.”
Diana Kondratova, a first-year Architecture student at SDE who is unsure whether her plans to minor in Physics will be compromised by CDE’s common curriculum, expressed her wish for a clearer announcement from NUS.
Kondratova said: “Even though it might be drastic, it would be more coherent, and easier to adapt to. Because right now they’re saying that they’re going to make changes starting semester two.”
“But what kind of changes? Like, what, are they going to make new mandatory mods we’re going to take? Nobody knows.”
She later shared: “The way this is being executed makes no sense, because they’re being so untransparent about what’s going on, like the fact that tutors don’t even know what’s going to happen next semester.”
Elly Lau, currently in her fourth year at FASS, also wondered how NUS’s lack of clarity concerning the mergers would affect student intake for CDE and the New College. “If you want to do admissions for new students but you don’t even have a complete picture, then how do you expect to attract students? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Kondratova said: “It’s just that communication is key, right? And when it’s absent, I think that’s when people get frustrated and confused.”
Key stakeholders disregarded
The consensus from many students’ comments is that NUS’s announcements fell short on both consultation and clarity.
The Monday after the merger announcement, Kondratova approached a professor in her faculty: “I asked my tutor about it, just very frustrated, because for them as tutors, I assumed they had a little bit more intel on what was going on.”
“But essentially, they were in the same place as we were, which is even more bizarre.”
This contrasts with Tan’s remark in the Sept. 28 town hall with Yale-NUS students: “We have had, actually, a lot of engagements with our students and faculty members.”
According to Kondratova, her tutor shared that when the tutors were briefed a week before classes started, they were only told to continue teaching in the same way as they had been before.
The commenter said: “I had assumed that rigorous and faculty-wide consultation had occurred prior to the decision on the mergers of the various institutions, but am now completely surprised to read fromthe full petition of how terribly this has all been managed and executed.”
“To learn that current members of the faculties were learning that mergers were occurring for the first time (and at the same time) as an alumnus who’d graduated almost 20 years ago is completely outrageous.”
She said: “I feel like for CHS it was profs who got the shorter end of the stick, because they had to devise a whole new common curriculum in less than a year.”
“This whole interdisciplinary thing… I mean, for professors, it’s sort of a struggle. Like, how do you teach an entirely new interdisciplinary module if it’s not what you’ve been doing for a while?”
Lau said that greater consultation from NUS was a simple ask that had not been fulfilled. “When you teach things like project work, they’re always like: ‘Oh, you have to gather feedback from your participants or beneficiaries,’ and then you incorporate that into your solution,” said Lau.
“These are simple skills that we are taught in schools, but it’s not being put into practice on a level that actually affects people’s everyday lives, which is wack. I just wish these weren’t difficult things to ask for.”
Kondratova spoke further on the announcement’s timing for students: “If they let us know that this was happening at least a month before school started, I think it would have made more sense.”
“I feel like the fact that they’re throwing out all this information about the mergers mid-semester… it just shows that they weren’t willing to hear what the main stakeholders, the students, had to say in the first place, right?”
Kondratova fell briefly silent, before continuing: “But it is what it is, right? The worst part is, you have to deal with it. You can’t really do anything.”
Interdisciplinary means what?
None of the students interviewed knew what the New College or CDE curricula would look like. However, speaking from their experience receiving an interdisciplinary education at NUS, they shared their hopes for what interdisciplinarity could look like: relevant, non-compulsory, and incentivized modules.
Alefiya, currently in her second year at FASS, said that the point of an interdisciplinary education is to “play to the strengths of each discipline.”
Bradley, in a similar vein, said that a good interdisciplinary curriculum would examine the core competencies of the professions in each discipline, and then take into account their ecosystems and working partners.
“I am… not sure if that’s what they’re doing?” Bradley said.
Most students said that interdisciplinary learning should not be made compulsory for various reasons.
J said that a good interdisciplinary curriculum would ensure “flexibility” and “diverse options,” rather than simply “collapsing things into one program, and then students have to go to that program rather than being able to choose.”
Despite the module emphasizing that the GE modules provide “workplace-ready skills that would help FASS graduates get better jobs,” Lau still found herself asking: “How is this going to be relevant to what I’m interested in?”
She said that a better alternative would be for NUS to integrate computational thinking into her existing Sociology modules. “Arguably that might be the harder thing to do,” she said, “but then that connection might be stronger in terms of relevance.”
Bradley also suggested that students should study the basics of their subject, before moving on to modules designed specifically to be interdisciplinary. “You should make those modules the star modules,” they said, suggesting that teachers with field experience in an interdisciplinary environment would be better equipped to teach interdisciplinary modules, which could then draw students in.
Prioritizing student welfare
Both Bradley and Kondratova shared concerns about SDE’s current workload, and how it might compromise students’ education and health if left unchecked. Kondratova mentioned the strain already introduced by a new compulsory Engineering module for Architecture students, while Bradley worried that CDE’s attempts at an interdisciplinary education would increase overwork, negatively impacting students’ education and health.
“It’s been five weeks; I pull off at least two all-nighters every week. It’s so crazy,” Kondratova said.
According to Bradley, it is “keep doing work, keep doing work, keep doing work” for Engineering, Architecture, and Industrial Design students as well.
They added: “There’s not a sense of belonging; it’s a sense of obligation and dread. One of the things that I really wish that NUS was willing to address—actually my biggest concern—is the mental health of students.”
Kondratova mentioned that the introduction of an Engineering module, EG1311 Design and Make, has caused existing workload-heavy Architecture modules to count for fewer modular credits. Kondratova said that Studio (AR1101 Design 1) is an eight-credit module that teaches the fundamentals of Architecture. Since the curricular changes, the module has been reduced to four credits. According to Kondratova, Design and Make is also strenuous, but the workload for Studio has not been decreased.
Bradley was concerned that overworking students could compromise the CDE’s future attempts at an interdisciplinary education. “I think one of the concerns with more compulsory modules is: Does it actually address this lack of belonging and overloaded feeling?”
“One of the most important things to being an interdisciplinary lifelong learner is to feel secure, safe, and mentally stable. Otherwise, you don’t want to learn anything new or ask what other people are doing.”
“That kind of flies in the face of interdisciplinary cross-pollination. Because you didn’t learn anything. All you learned was to do the project.”
They shared their view on what interdisciplinary education should encompass instead: “It’s not just hard skills and soft skills. It’s also about self-management and interpersonal relationships—that, admittedly, is very hard to teach.”
“You’re not exempt from what you’re teaching us”
Some students also felt a strong sense of irony in the way the decisions were made.
J said: “The whole point of having this tight-knit community like USP is because they want to provide an environment where people who are actively engaged can have an avenue to be actively engaged.”
“So I thought there was this whole, like, irony where you make a big decision and the students are not given any say in it, and not even a heads-up.”
Bradley pointed out that the ability to receive critical feedback is necessary to being a good designer: “If you don’t know how to do that, you’re a horrible designer.”
They continued: “NUS management are being bad designers of NUS. They’re not designing a very hospitable environment.”
“My personal motto is: ‘Design for people with people.’ I think maybe NUS Management should keep that in mind: When you design systems and a syllabus and curriculum for people, they’re gonna interact with it, and they’re gonna experience it. So you should have a bit of empathy.”
“You’re not exempt from what you’re teaching us,” Alefiya said. “You’re teaching us the power of speech and critical thought, and you’re not exempt from following it.”
The formation of CDE was announced on Aug. 2021 and involves a merger between the School of Design and Engineering (SDE) and the Faculty of Engineering (FOE). Meanwhile, the formation of CHS was announced on Sept. 2020, involving the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Science (FOS).
In a town hall with Yale-NUS College students on Sept. 28, students stepped up to the microphone to voice their concerns to Tan about the lack of consultation during the decision-making process in the formation of the New College as well as CDE and CHS.
Tan, however, questioned the truth of students’ statements and challenged students to “rely on facts.” He then claimed that “extensive consultations” were carried out with student representatives and faculty members from the faculties affected by the formations of CDE and CHS.
Tan said, while slowing down to emphasize his point: “I was in every department. I spoke to every faculty in each of the departments in FOS, FASS, SDE, and FOE. I went down to every department and I spoke to them.”
“It’s true that for the students, we did it in closed groups for SDE and FOE. But for FOS, there were actually a number of town halls, likewise for FASS.”
“So that’s the facts. Check with any department. I was there.”
The Octant’s fact checking, however, shows that many student representatives and faculty members in the affected faculties were unaware of such consultations.
An “open secret”
The Octant received conflicting accounts on the extent of consultation with FOS faculty.
A faculty member from FOS told The Octant that the CHS announcement had been an “open secret” among some faculty members before it was announced in Sept. 2020.
“The department heads had already actively been discussing this both formally and informally with faculty for about three months,” the faculty member said. “And there were rumors and gossip about this merger for even longer before that.”
The FOS faculty member continued: “There was certainly consultation with faculty prior to the [CHS] announcement—and, if my recollection serves me well, the design of CHS, especially the curriculum, was modified in response to faculty feedback.”
However, another faculty member from FOS told The Octant that she received only two email invitations to faculty discussions about CHS.
According to the FOS faculty member, the first session was held on Sept. 22, only one day before the CHS announcement. The other was held on Oct. 19, one month after the announcement.
The CHS curriculum is still incomplete at the time of writing, with several modules yet to be announced. Meanwhile, CDE still does not have its own website.
Decision was “already cast in stone”
Meanwhile, many other faculty members and students in the affected faculties said that they were unaware of any consultations prior to the announcements of CHS and CDE.
A faculty member from FOE said in an email to The Octant: “We were not ‘consulted’ on the decision; at least I wasn’t. Perhaps faculty higher up the food chain were consulted in some way. But I don’t know.”
“Indeed, the President did visit each department to talk to the faculty members. But by then, CHS and CDE were already set up, already cast in stone.”
“The visits to the departments were not consultative in nature. The President was there to explain his rationale for setting up these colleges, but some colleagues were not convinced.”
“The colleagues I’ve interacted with are not too pleased about the decisions but are resigned to work within the parameters.”
Two town halls with the FOE and SDE faculty members were held on June 2 and 3, after the decision to form CDE was made but before it was publicly announced. The town hall was hosted by Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost of NUS; Aaron Thean, Dean of FOE; and Lam Khee Poh, Dean of SDE.
The faculty member continued: “There were several faculty members who voiced their displeasure at the merger. But the Provost was defensive at the town hall.”
FASS faculty members have also previously been cited as criticizing the lack of consultation in the decision to form CHS. FASS faculty members reported having only been consulted after the announcement was made, and one faculty member said that his department was left “scrambling” due to the lack of clarity behind the decision.
FASS and FOS students, meanwhile, told The Octant that they were only aware of one engagement session on CHS for each of the two faculties on Oct. 22 and 23, 2020 respectively.
These engagement sessions only took place one month after the formation of CHS was announced, and not before. Tan himself was also absent from both of these engagement sessions.
A student representative from SDE, meanwhile, told The Octant that there was an engagement session with student representatives last week, but they were not aware of any consultations prior to that session.
Meanwhile, a student from the Architecture department of SDE said that they were also not aware of any engagement sessions with the wider student body regarding CDE to date.
Story | Lily Chen (she/her), Contributing Reporter Photo | Provided by Prof Chaewon Ahn (she/her)
An introduction to the series:
When I came up with the idea of interviewing new faculties in mid-August, a week before the tragic announcement, I was clueless of what I would encounter. After August 27th, I considered shifting the direction of the interviews entirely to just focus on the closure, as that seems to be the only thing that people care about, but in the end I chose to add some questions and keep the rest casual and unrelated to the closure. The main motivation is that in the process of reaching out to the professors and during the actual interviews, many professors indeed expressed their appreciation and desire to have a “normal conversation.” This reminds me of the start of COVID, when everyone was drowned in the sea of depressing COVID-related news, it was so crucial to have some “normal conversations.”
In this series of interviews, you will read about the new faculties that joined the College this academic year, not only about their background and research interest but also their personal life and experience. It is, no doubt, hectic, to start a career during a tumultuous time like this, but the professors are very optimistic about their time here and they are genuinely excited to be a part of this community. All in all, life goes on and we still have four years left with those dedicated professors, who truly care about a liberal arts education. I hope that you can keep an eye out and follow this series in the following weeks.
Q: I know that a lot of professors have experience of living in different countries. Would you like to share with me about where you have lived?
A: I actually have lived in many places. I was born in Korea, then my family moved to France first, and then settled in Germany because my parents were studying. So I spent my childhood in Germany, came back to Korea and learned Korean when I was 10 years old. And I stayed in Korea until college and moved to the US to do graduate studies. I lived in Boston, and in between I had this one exchange semester in Paris, so there was a short six month period when I lived in Paris for a while.
Q: So do you consider Korea as your home?
A: Yes I do. I guess it’s because I spent my elementary school, middle school, high school and college years in Korea. I consider Korea to be a home for me, versus Germany for instance or Boston, but I do also feel that when I think about rooting or settling in some place, it gets a little bit tricky, because I feel like I could settle pretty much anywhere, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be Korea.
Q: You mentioned that you went to university in Korea and also in Boston in the States. So how was your university experience? Do you have any “life advice“ for students at Yale-NUS?
A: One thing that definitely was very different is that, in Korea, I went to a small art school, it’s a very similar atmosphere to Yale-NUS, because the class sizes were really small, we had a very intimate relationship with faculties and with each other. That was a great time, and I studied architecture back then. But then when I moved to the US, I got into MIT, so it was like a massive, very large school with so many different disciplines. It was definitely kind of a very different experience from what I had at my undergrad, and it really pushed me to think of where my comfort zones are, who I am. To be honest, because I was exposed in such an environment that I was really not used to, there was a lot of searching myself happening in the first couple of years when I moved to the US.
Q: Your research interests are architecture, urban design, data visualization and urban studies. How did you get into it and why are you so passionate about it?
A: So currently, I would define myself as an urban researcher rather than an architect and urban designer. I think it really all started from this curiosity about how spaces are made, and it was a really big realization for me when I was in high school learning that all the spaces that I’m experiencing are a product of someone or some forces. So that really intrigued me to get into architecture school. However, at some point I realized I’m not so much a designer on the architect, because I would be constantly curious of how are these conditions that really define the limits of what I can do as a designer, how are these conditions formed, so that really encouraged me to get into urban design, and then further to urban studies. The data piece in it is really what happened while I was in MIT. My master’s years was in an architecture program, but still it was such a transformative time for me that I got to be familiar with big data, urban data and GIS and these type of data driven approaches, which really influenced me to do my PhD also in urban studies in the intersection of urban information systems and city design.
Q: Based on your teaching experience so far at Yale-NUS, is there anything that you didn’t expect, like a “Expectation VS Reality”?
A: First off, I never expected I would be teaching my first class remotely via zoom from Korea, so that’s a big expectation versus reality situation. But I was really surprised about how students are so engaged. I had to send out my syllabus and had a first announcement to the class towards the first week of classes and students would already sign up to my office hours to just come by and say hi. I think that was a culture shock to me to be honest, I would never have been at MIT, where I used to TA, students would seek you when they have issues, troubles, or when they need something from you, not to be just welcoming you, and that was a really big shock. I really want to know what my students are feeling towards the class. I’m teaching geospatial and demographic methods, so it’s a very tool-oriented course, and there’s a lot of content to cover every week, so I feel like I’m rushing into many things, and I wonder how students are feeling about if I’m giving students enough space to do things themselves, and if they feel that the speed of the course is actually right for them. So there are many kinds of unknowns, to be honest, but I had a really really good beginning of this career with this class.
Q: What does a liberal arts education mean to you?
A: One of the things that really connected me to the school while I was doing the interviews was what Prof Beng Huat Chua said. He was saying that the liberal arts education is not really about creating or fostering skills that are useful, it’s more about helping students, teaching them how to ask questions. He was saying something that we’re not teaching anything that is practical, it’s rather about the things that are maybe not practical, but still essential for being a human being. I think that really resonated with me, because it’s a pretty rare model to have an education [like this] these days, especially in many schools that I see, there is such an emphasis in STEM majors. There’s such an emphasis in kind of majors that would connect to higher rates of getting better jobs, so I think what is really unique and amazing about the liberal arts education, especially in Yale-NUS, is the fact that it really focuses on helping students gaining the skills to think and be critical and start posing questions that they would be answering with their experiences.
A: Even though I have been here only for two months and only teaching for four weeks now, it’s still enough time to learn what this community is like, in my opinion, and for me it’s really sad to know that what I started to really like is not going to exist in 2025. And this is a line that came up in The Chair in Netflix in the first episode, the main character says, “I feel like I came to a party that is already over.” (laugh) That’s how I feel in some ways, but in other ways I also feel that there are four years left, and there are so many really committed, hard working professors who have built this community with the students. Have some trust in them that we will find better resolutions within four years.
Q: Are you a cat person or a dog person?
A: I like cats. Yes, I am a cat person. I wish I had a cat, someday maybe.
Q: If you won a lottery and decided to give up teaching, what would you do instead?
A: Give up teaching…I don’t know. I would move to a small island, and read and take walks and…honestly, I never really imagined these things.
Q: Small island, sounds like Singapore?
A: Like minus people (laugh). Like the small island of what I imagined was, you know, like deserted, or being in nature.
Q: Do you have a dish that you can cook very well, and would you like to share the recipe?
A: I am not a good cook, I have like five dishes that I can make based on while I’m watching the YouTube recipe. And that’s how I survived my graduate years, to be honest. I can make Bulgogi. I found this formula that is perhaps not so healthy but still very easy to cook. You would have pork, and then some vegetables chopped, and then mix it with soy sauce and sugar and salt and pepper, but then there’s this kind of ratio on which you would include each of these ingredients, if you have two cups of soy sauce, which is a lot, then you would have one cup of sugar, which is also a lot. And then I think half a cup of minced garlic, and then you’re letting it sit there for a while.
Q: If you had a choice to choose a superpower, like being invisible or flying, what would you choose?
A: Flying would be great. It’s not a superpower, but I also picked up skateboarding during COVID. And I learned very quickly that the tricks that you kind of see that seem doable are actually not doable at all…if there is a superpower that kind of enables me to do all the tricks that I wanted to in one day that would be awesome.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor and Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief Graphic | Siddharth Mohan Roy (he/him), Social Media Manager Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
This is part three of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part two, which addresses the transition process to the New College, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
At the town hall on Tuesday, NUS President Tan Eng Chye addressed Yale-NUS College students directly, for the first time since his announcement that the school would be closing more than a month ago.
During the live Q&A section toward the end of the town hall, many students stepped up to the microphones and spoke over Zoom to ask questions, air their grievances, and ask Tan for acknowledgment of the hurt caused by the lack of accountability behind the decision.
However, Tan repeatedly dismissed and challenged student concerns in his responses, and avoided acknowledging the hurt caused to students by the decision even when asked to do so several times. Most students were left visibly and audibly upset after the town hall concluded.
An informal poll conducted by The Octant on a college-wide Telegram group for Yale-NUS students after the town hall asked how satisfied students were on a scale of 1 to 5.
Of the 319 respondents—almost one-third of the entire Yale-NUS student population—95% of students ranked their level of satisfaction at 1 or 2. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they were “completely unsatisfied” with the town hall.
The town hall saw the largest number of pre-submitted questions of any town hall in Yale-NUS history. At the end of the live Q&A portion, there were still dozens of students queuing at the microphones and raising their hands on Zoom with their questions unanswered.
In part one of The Octant’s coverage of the town hall, Prof. Tan described financial considerations behind the decision to close Yale-NUS and explained his vision for an NUS-wide curricular restructuring. In part two, Tan described the need for New College policies to fit into the wider NUS ecosystem, which may affect several autonomous Yale-NUS policies.
Unhappy NUS Students and Faculty? “Well, I’d like to talk to them”
At press time, almost 15,000 people have signed the #NoMoreTopDown petition, while professors, alumni, and other observers have also expressed strong disapproval.
In light of the sizable amount of opposition, a student asked Tan if he could promise to engage with students meaningfully. She said that despite the opposition, she and her peers in Yale-NUS and the wider NUS felt “deeply upset” and did not feel like their concerns had been taken seriously.
“Unfortunately, most of my peers hesitate to even attend these town halls, because we no longer expect that genuine conversation will happen, and we fear that we will be disappointed again.”
“Yet, if we want to encourage our students to care beyond ourselves, as Education Minister Chan Chun Sing has announced in Parliament, we need to build a community where students can feel safe when they express their opinions in a hope of contributing to a more inclusive and excellent community in NUS.”
Added to that, she pointed to the existing regulation at NUS that considers actions that damage the university’s reputation and interest as a “serious offence.” She said: “A regulation like this has contributed to a real sense of fear that anything we say or do publicly, even if it is out of love for our university, can be construed to be against the interests of the university.”
She then asked Tan: “Will you ensure that these popular sentiments are not just heard or taken into account, but actually engaged upon in a transparent manner that meaningfully affects your executive decisions, specifically your merger decision?”
“What concrete actions will you, as the President of NUS, take in response to the fact that so many people have expressed their strong disapproval towards your plans?”
As the student spoke, many members of the in-person audience snapped their fingers in agreement. At the end of her question, the audience broke into loud applause.
In response, Tan said that there was some “misinformation” in the #NoMoreTopDown petition.
“First of all, if you look at the petition, it has actually had quite a bit of misinformation. The College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) is not a merger. The College of Design and Engineering (CDE) and CHS, we went through more than a year of consultations.”
“I think integrity is extremely important. If you voice your displeasure, please rely on facts.”
Yale-NUS was not consulted prior to the closure announcement, with its president and governing board being completely sidelined in the decision making that led to the closure.
He then denied that there was any significant opposition to his decisions from within the NUS community and questioned the student on the truth of her statement.
“Have you actually asked your friends and faculty members?” Tan challenged. “For every one that says no, I’m sure I can find 10 others that actually have the reverse experience.”
When the student replied that she and many others had indeed spoken to a lot of their friends and faculty in NUS, Tan retorted: “Well, I’d like to talk to them.”
Tan did not address the unhappiness from students and faculty across the NUS community on various platforms, such as on the petition page and on The Ridge, the NUS Student Union’s publication.
The Octant had also reached out to Tan and various other members of the NUS management, including Prof. Ho Teck Hua, Senior Deputy President and Provost, in the month following the announcement, but requests for meetings with them have received no replies.
When the student asked Tan whether his statement meant that student voices would be heard, and what concrete actions would be taken, Tan replied: “I’d like to hear exactly, really, what troubles them. What exactly they are unhappy about.”
“If I think these sorts of concerns are justified, we will certainly try to make changes and refinements. We have had, actually, a lot of engagements with our students and faculty members. I can say that the sentiments that we get are very different from the sentiments that you get.”
“I look forward to listening to them, as we always do. And we will refine our approach as we see fit.”
A student also pointed out during the Q&A that the consultations with CDE and CHS, which Tan said proved the petition inaccurate, only involved a few student representatives behind closed doors, with no input from the wider student bodies.
The student also said that Tan’s response detracted from the “main meat” of the petition. He continued: “We do not want you to debate us on semantics. We want you to address NUS’s recent, and, actually, continuous process of making decisions from the top and behind the scenes.”
In response, Tan said: “It is not appropriate to bring in the other stakeholders—even, in this case, the Yale-NUS governing board.”
“There are other cases, like the CDE. But that’s something which impacts the entire body.”
Since the closure announcement, the college—from students, staff, to faculty—have been grappling with grief and anger. Many students find it hard to stay focused and motivated while trying to process the immensity of this event together.
“Just imagine,” Tan said, “had I actually taken the approach to say: ‘Okay, shall we have half a year where we talk about whether NUS should disassociate itself from this partnership with Yale?’ I think this would have actually a tremendous impact on the Yale-NUS community.”
“Can you perhaps think in this way? I am actually preventing the Yale-NUS program from being diluted”
During the live Q&A section of the town hall, another student said that the community could not move on from the decision without the NUS leadership taking ownership and showing that they were listening to their voices.
She said: “When I think about what leadership means, it means having a vision and conviction to progress forward, yes. But I also think it means having care, consideration, and compassion for the people that a leader is supposed to lead.”
“How will you recognize and acknowledge the hurt that your decision-making process has caused to thousands of students, staff, and faculty? Are you willing to commit to learning from this experience and prevent such widespread harm from being caused again in the future? Are you willing to incorporate greater inclusivity and involvement of stakeholders?”
Tan replied: “Change is often difficult. And it’s often difficult to face change. So, I hope that the Yale-NUS community can look forward, rather than backward.”
“Can you perhaps think in this way? I’m actually preventing the Yale-NUS program from being diluted. Right?”
Many students reacted in disbelief toward Tan’s statement, with some members of the in-person audience breaking into incredulous laughter.
The student, in response to Tan’s statement, replied: “I just wanted to point out the fact that answering my question with questions of your own is literally not showing compassion and active listening to what students and the greater Yale-NUS community is trying to say.”
She continued: “I think we are all really genuinely trying very hard to understand all the financial and other behind-the-scenes decisions that are being conducted. But I don’t believe that this same degree of empathy and active listening is also being accorded to us by the administration.”
Tan did not respond to the student’s comment.
Another student then stepped up to the microphone, and said: “Right now, I’m not asking for more details and clarifications on the New College, and the process or rationale behind the decision.”
“I am simply asking this: Do you know? Do you understand? Do you care? And if not, why?”
In response, Tan said: “It may not seem that I care, but I do care. That’s the reason why we have tried to answer many of your questions.”
“But I just hope that the community can calm down a little,” he continued. “Try to listen. Listen to our perspective, too.”
Tan said the key concern is to minimize the impact on existing students by ensuring a “full Yale-NUS experience,” and protecting the livelihoods of existing staff and faculty. Because the program is not sustainable, he said, it would be irresponsible to continue the college by taking in another batch of students.
Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, the student said while Tan did answer her questions on the surface, on a deeper level, it “still betrays a lack of understanding and care” about the “psychological distress and turmoil that this decision has inflicted” on the Yale-NUS community.
“He did not take the time and effort to actually process my question and understand why and what I’m asking,” she added.
Decision-making process: The downside is that “I have incurred the anger of the Yale-NUS community”
A student then asked about the cost-benefit analysis behind the decision, and what NUS stood to lose from making the decision.
Tan replied: “This decision, good and bad. Good, in the sense that I would have made accessible some of the key benefits of Yale-NUS and USP to students in NUS.”
“Bad, of course, in the sense that I have incurred the anger of the Yale-NUS community.”
Tan continued: “Largely, I want you to see that I’m looking at the interests of the entire NUS.”
When the student pressed Tan on why he thought Yale-NUS students were angry, Tan responded while waving his hand towards the audience: “I fully understand it. From your questions, I can fully understand. But let me just try and say it again: Let’s cool down and think about it.”
“I think you are in a very unenviable position. I tried to explain to you that, if we do nothing, your program will continue to be diluted. And you are the ones who eventually will suffer, starting from next year.”
Another student addressed Tan’s previous comment about the decision being made in the interest of NUS as a public university, as well as Tan’s previous comments that the decision was made in consideration of “an important stakeholder” in MOE.
The student said that the decision implied that NUS was willing to sacrifice the interests of students and faculty in order to pursue its institutional interests. The student then asked about Tan’s plans to assure students and faculty that NUS still values their interests, and to heal the breach of trust.
To which Tan replied: “I’m happy to work with your Yale-NUS senior leadership to continue talking to some of you.”
“I know it will take some time for you all to accept this. But please also bear in mind that there are certain circumstances.”
“It’s just quite obvious, at least from my point of view, where the college is heading. There are some trade-offs in whatever decisions we make. So we make the decision in the interest of the current batch of students.”
“I hope to slowly win all of you over.”
Another student asked how the NUS management would ensure that student representatives have a final say in the New College committee’s overarching decision-making process, rather than being token representatives. He then asked if a procedure could be set up to ensure that staff, students, and faculty on the ground can be heard while decisions are being made.
Tan responded: “I don’t think that students should have the final say, but I think that the community should have an important say.”
“Students have only one perspective. They come from a perspective of something that they don’t know.”
“While they are important, they cannot be the only say. We should hear from the students, but I think we should take a more holistic view.”
Tan continued, responding to the question on if procedures can be put in place for voices on the ground to be heard, as well as for committee decisions to be communicated with transparency: “Our New College committee has student representatives, and the student representatives will be the conduit. So feel free to submit and to surface your ideas to the student reps, and we’ll take that into consideration.”
Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, the student said having student representatives as conduits was not enough because “that’s what we have now.”
He highlighted that there should be a formalized channel by which students and staff can be made aware of the decision-making, provide input, and know how their feedback is evaluated.
“Students and staff cannot simply ‘surface our ideas’ to the committees without knowing what’s happening—how else is NUS meant to see that ‘holistic view’ of its stakeholders’ needs?”
As the town hall concluded with many students still waiting in line with questions unasked, the student moderator asked if Tan would be open to more dialogues in the future.
In response, Tan said: “Again, I’m open. And I hope to slowly win all of you over.”
Students: “I came to this town hall without much hope, and I left with even less”
Most students interviewed left the town hall unsatisfied and unhappy.
Speaking to The Octant directly after the town hall, Daniel Suresh Thomas ‘25 said: “I came to this town hall without much hope, and I left with even less.”
“What I felt from this town hall, and what I got the most, is that Prof. Tan Eng Chye doesn’t see Yale-NUS as a part of the wider NUS community. He sees it as a separate entity and, in essence, has decided that our views should not be considered and our perspectives should be ignored.”
“In the various town halls, there has been a flip-flopping and skirting of the real issue. There have been various reasons raised [for Yale-NUS’s closure]. First of all, it was to enhance the interdisciplinary approach. Then, we found out that the real reason was finances. There has been no transparency and no clarity.”
“I think that this pill would be much easier to swallow if everyone knew exactly what they were swallowing.”
Josh ‘24, who raised a question during the live Q&A section, said: “Prof. Tan was repeating material we already know. It’s ironic that he described his problem as us not listening to his point of view, when all he could offer us was the recycled talking points from his previous statements.”
Josh added: “I was surprised to hear Prof. Tan say that being upset about top-down decision-making is primarily a Yale-NUS sentiment. He implies that NUS students are mostly happy or accepting about previous, equally top-down decisions NUS administration has made, such as the formation of CHS and the CDE merger.”
Roberts: “I wish the session had gone a bit differently”
Speaking to The Octant on the day after the town hall, Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS, who was one of the panelists on stage at the town hall, said: “I resonate with the feelings of many members of the community when they wish for Yale-NUS to be recognized as successful and valuable.”
Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students and panelist at the town hall, shared these sentiments. He told The Octant in an email: “Yale-NUS is a special community that holds great meaning and significance to so many of us. That was never more evident than through the sentiments shared during the town hall.”
When asked about student sentiments that Tan showed a lack of empathy during the town hall, Roberts said: “I think that he came and he wanted to explain his decision to the community, and I think the community wanted to feel seen by him emotionally, and to have their emotions recognized by him.
“I think he was trying to do that, but I am not sure that it was entirely successful.”
“I think he is a calm and reserved person. I’m glad he came, and I wish the session had gone a bit differently.”
The Octant is verifying the statements that Tan made during the town hall, and will publish another report soon.
This is part three of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part two, which addresses the transition process to the New College, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor and Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief Graphic | Siddharth Mohan Roy (he/him), Social Media Manager Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
This is part two of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
At the town hall on Sept. 28, NUS President Tan Eng Chye addressed Yale-NUS College students directly, for the first time since his announcement that the school would be closing over a month ago.
In part one of The Octant’s coverage of the town hall, Prof. Tan described financial considerations behind the decision to close Yale-NUS and explained his vision for an NUS-wide curricular restructuring.
In this report, we focus on how Tan described the need for the New College policies to fit into the wider NUS ecosystem, which may affect several Yale-NUS policies, including those on sexual misconduct. Tan also described aspects of the transition to the New College, and told Yale-NUS students to “think more positively” about the move.
Tan then fielded questions on accountability and transparency during a heated live Q&A session. This will be covered in part three of The Octant’s series of reports on the town hall.
New College will be less autonomous; need to be “mindful of the broader culture”
As an autonomous college, some policies at Yale-NUS are distinct from those of NUS.
For example, unlike NUS, Yale-NUS does not make the Faculty Code of Conduct public, which has since become a cause for concern in the Yale-NUS community.
Responding to whether these policies would be implemented in the New College, Tan said: “I know that Yale-NUS has a special concern for this group of students. That doesn’t mean that NUS does not.”
“A lot of your practices are quite consistent with our practices. Maybe there are slight nuances here and there,” he said. “The New College fits into the NUS ecosystem, and the nuancing and the positioning of the New College has to be consistent with the nuancing and positioning of the larger NUS ecosystem.”
“You must also be mindful of the broader culture when you want to push certain practices. You must be sensitive to adverse reactions. So we have to do this carefully calibrated (sic).”
When pressed for a more concrete response on gender-inclusive housing, Tan pointed to a similar discussion that was tabled while planning for the establishment of University Town in 2011.
He said: “We did get the feedback of parents, and parents actually have slightly different thinking. We have to be very mindful in the context of the larger ecosystem. We have to do certain things that are more acceptable to the larger ecosystem. You don’t want to build a small enclave, where there can be possibly some tension and conflict.”
“I think we will take this on board, but we want to make sure that the larger ecosystem is comfortable.”
The decision to close Yale-NUS was also met with parental pushback. After the “merger” was announced, numerous parents of current and deferred students and alumni of Yale-NUS expressed strong disapproval against the closure and concerns for their children’s academic experience. In early September, more than 260 parents penned a letter to the President, demanding more clarity on the reasons behind the closure.
The NUS management did not consult with parents to gather their feedback prior to this shock announcement.
Yale-NUS’s sexual misconduct policies and the “first #MeToo incident”
Still, Tan acknowledged that there are numerous aspects of Yale-NUS policies that NUS can benefit from, such as the sexual misconduct policies.
“In 2019, that was our first #MeToo incident,” Tan said. “We actually studied the Yale-NUS system, and took a lot of learning from the Yale-NUS system. [We] implemented it quite quickly, within five weeks.”
On April 18, 2019, Monica Baey, a then-NUS student, posted stories on her Instagram account about Nicholas Lim, a fellow NUS student who had filmed her showering. The incident had happened five months prior, and Lim was let off with a conditional warning, a one-semester suspension, and an apology letter.
The #MeToo hashtag, however, was not used in any of Baey’s Instagram stories.
On April 30 of that year, NUS convened a committee to review the university’s sexual misconduct and survivor support policies. Six weeks later, the committee submitted its recommendations to NUS, with reference to similar policy changes and programs in Yale-NUS.
NUS began implementing the recommendations in the following months, including introducing tougher sanctions for sexual misconduct in June and setting up the Victim Care Unit in August, which has since been renamed the NUS Care Unit.
Tan said he was unable to give details of which current Yale-NUS sexual misconduct and survivor support policies could be extended to the rest of NUS, as a formal review and consultation will be under the purview of the New College planning committee.
Reni Chng ‘21 was part of the ground-up initiatives by Yale-NUS students calling for a better sexual misconduct policy and survivor support system. Speaking to The Octant after the town hall, Chng said they were “confused” by Tan’s description of the 2019 incident as the “first #MeToo incident,” as Baey did not use the hashtag in her calls for better survivor support in NUS.
Chng added: “Survivors in NUS had already been calling for better support and reporting channels long before 2019. If he wanted to reference the first incident to get nationwide attention, the orientation camp incidents back in 2016 had made similar waves in the papers.”
A student coordinator from the NUS student organization Students for a Safer NUS, which advocates improvements in NUS’s handling of sexual misconduct cases, shared Chng’s opinion.
Speaking in their personal capacity, the student noted: “His framing it as a ‘#MeToo’ incident seems to downplay the damage sexual violence has on survivors and twists it into something positive.”
“However, it was the result of many institutional failures in NUS that left survivors in serious harm before this. This wouldn’t have changed had one’s story of not just sexual violence, but how the institution failed them, became known nationwide.”
Chng then said that much of Yale-NUS’s sexual misconduct and survivor support policy improvements were student-driven and student-initiated, and expressed doubts that Yale-NUS’s level of responsiveness to student feedback could be replicated in the New College.
“Our first campus-wide sexual respect survey was worked on by students. There are survivor support initiatives which students played a major role in organizing as well,” Chng said, pointing to the sexual misconduct policy reform in 2018 and Take Back the Night, an event that called upon the community to stand together for sexual empowerment and respect, as examples.
Chng continued: “It was not the case that students would give feedback once and wait months for admin to work on it. Students were part of every step of the process.”
“The Yale-NUS system that they ‘took a lot of learning from’ is one built on the work of students, made possible because administration worked with us rather than top-down. There is no use trying to learn from the product if the method is ignored.”
“I was at the town hall after the Monica Baey incident and heard NUS students repeatedly voice frustration at the lack of say they have in the very policies that affect their own safety. These top-down decisions reflect that this fundamental approach has not changed.”
“If ‘less autonomy’ is to be the starting ground of New College, I have no confidence that sexual climate related policies in this environment will be ones that support student safety.”
Transition Period: A Full Yale-NUS Experience?
Both Tan and Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS, reiterated that they were committed to ensuring the “full experience” for Yale-NUS students in the remaining years of the school, by retaining a small student-faculty ratio, maintaining facilities, and retaining faculty and administrative staff members.
However, a student said during the live Q&A that they felt that NUS’s current promises would not adequately capture the full experience. The student then asked if NUS could provide concrete statements and goal markers to ensure that the full Yale-NUS experience provided by the school would be one that was reflective of student experience.
In response, Tan said that NUS would work very closely with the Yale-NUS Governing Board and administration to ensure that many of the existing offerings at Yale-NUS would remain intact. He also said that NUS would provide Yale-NUS with resources if necessary.
He continued: “I would also like you to think more positively in this particular angle. As Yale-NUS is winding down, we will be bringing in a group of New College students.”
“This is actually a good opportunity for Yale-NUS to try to infuse some of your values into this group of New College students. And that is only possible when you interact with them, embrace them, and engage them. That’s something we hope you can try to embrace, and hopefully infuse some of the things that you hope to see in the New College.”
During the live Q&A section of the town hall, a student then asked about the possibility of delaying the formation of the New College in order to ensure a more effective and consultative planning process.
Tan responded: “I’m confident that we can push the New College for implementation next year. I have already said so earlier that [at] NUS, we are quite accustomed to making even major curricular changes. We have enough dedicated and able faculty members to do that.”
As Yale-NUS students currently only gain access to NUS modules in the second round of the module registration exercise, Tan was also asked if Yale-NUS students could get a higher priority when applying to NUS classes in the transitional years ahead. Tan replied that NUS will “look sympathetically to this sort of issues,” and will work with Prof. Roberts to iron out the details.
Adding to that, he said: “I guess some of the popular modules will be those in the School of Computing and also in the Business School.”
Financial Compensation to Students, Staff, and Faculty On Transition Committees
The student moderator asked if NUS will consider offering any financial compensation to the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the transition committees, given that such work is essential to the construction of the New College.
Tan said that in order to ensure the same academic experience for Yale-NUS students in the next four years, the existing resources will have to remain unchanged, which meant that there could not be any reduction in fees.
He added that the dwindling student population over the next four years would cause a reduction in revenue for Yale-NUS, but the “underlying costs” of ensuring the full academic experience remained the same. Tan said that this gap had to be met “either by NUS or by the reserves from Yale-NUS.”
We would like to express our gratitude to Reni Chng ‘21 for helping with this article
This is part two of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part one, which addresses the NUS-wide curriculum restructuring and Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability, can be found here. Part three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor; Xie Yihui (she/her), Editor-in-Chief; Suman Padhi (she/her) and Siddharth Mohan Roy (he/him), Contributing Reporters Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
This is part one of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part two, which addresses the transition from Yale-NUS to the New College, can be found here. Part three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
At a town hall on Tuesday, NUS President Tan Eng Chye addressed the Yale-NUS student body directly, for the first time since his announcement that the school would be closing more than a month ago.
Other than Prof. Tan, the town hall was also helmed by Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) of Yale-NUS; and Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students of Yale-NUS.
According to the student moderator, the town hall saw almost 100 pre-submitted questions, the largest number for any town hall in Yale-NUS’s history.
Speaking from the Performance Hall stage, Tan described his considerations behind the decision to close Yale-NUS, including considerations of financial sustainability and his vision of an NUS-wide restructuring that will include the School of Computing next year. He is still considering ways to incorporate the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music into this structure.
Tan also described plans for the transition to the New College and fielded questions on accountability and transparency during a combative live Q&A session. These will be covered in parts two and three of The Octant’s series of reports on the town hall.
NUS-wide restructuring: common curriculum to ensure a broad intellectual foundation
Tan reiterated that the “merger” of Yale-NUS and USP is part of the broader roadmap in his personal vision to make the curriculum structure of NUS “very similar to” that of Yale-NUS.
According to Tan, students under this new structure will take about one-third of their total modules as common curriculum modules, one-third as electives, with the remaining portion under major requirements.
The formations of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) and College of Design and Engineering are all part of the shift towards this curricular structure that aims to promote interdisciplinary learning. Tan added that the NUS School of Business was “already under this curriculum structure.”
The restructuring has previously impacted the Faculty of Science, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, School of Design and Environment, as well as Faculty of Engineering. Tan said that these four faculties are the biggest in NUS, which means two-thirds of students are involved.
According to statistics released by the NUS Registrar’s Office, however, undergraduate students from these four faculties constitute 55% of the NUS undergraduate student population for the Academic Year 2020/2021.
Tan also outlined plans for further restructuring that would affect the rest of NUS. He said: “Next year, the School of Computing will come under this curriculum structure. We only have the Conservatory of Music that we’re still trying to find a way for them to come under this curriculum structure (sic).”
“We want most of our students to do a double major. They can actually choose a second major from a spread of second majors available across the entire NUS.”
“This is one way we are pushing, and the common curriculum ensures that our graduates have a very broad intellectual foundation.”
The New College fits in, he said, because it would allow students from other faculty to access the common curriculum.
Tan also said that he hoped the new changes would allow for a more diverse version of the Yale-NUS common curriculum: “Currently, you have an interdisciplinary curriculum, spanning from humanities to social sciences to sciences. “
“We are hoping that we can inject elements of design, engineering, and other areas, or even business, into it, so it will be more diverse.”
Finances: Yale offered help, but not enough
In a recently-published statement, Yale-NUS’s alumni raised the point that liberal arts colleges need time to grow their endowments and these investments require time to bear fruit. The alumni statement said that the first few batches of the College’s alumni have barely hit the age of 30, and are not yet able to make generous donations. The statement also said that in the past few weeks, alumni have proven to be “actively dedicated to maintaining ties with Yale-NUS and ensuring the continued growth of its community.”
In response to the statement, Tan said that it was impossible to raise funds based on the current pace of fundraising. As explained previously by himself and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, Yale-NUS aimed to raise $300 million for its endowment by 2030 which, with the help of government matching, would amount to an endowment of $1 billion. To date, however, only $87 million has been raised.
Furthermore, Tan explained that the total cost per Singaporean student at Yale-NUS, which includes the government subsidy of $70,000 and the tuition fee of $20,000, is $90,000. In comparison, the fees for each student at CHS is $8,000 with a government subsidy of $22,000, with a total cost per student amounting to $30,000.
“It’s three times the cost. Three times the cost is actually tremendously difficult to match, to sort of bridge,” Tan explained. “It’s not just the endowment that you have to bridge; it is the number of faculty you have to bridge and the number of admin staff that you need to trim.”
“It’s not so straightforward to raise money, not in Singapore,” he continued. “It is easy for Yale to raise a billion dollars a year, because they do have a very conducive culture in the States for fundraising.”
“In Singapore, fundraising is still very nascent. It takes time, and it takes a lot of cultivation. NUS has been working hard on this, but when you look at the scheme of things, it is actually very challenging to try to raise that. And the thing that begs an important and urgent response is: Who is going to fill in the gap?”
While Tan did “raise the [financial] issue to Yale,” who offered to help, the assistance was not sufficient to close the gap.
He said: “To be frank, at some stage, Yale actually volunteered that they could try to help us in fundraising, but the thing is that the gap is really too big for us to bridge. The key thing is that even if realize, you still have a big gap (sic).”
During the live Q&A session, a student highlighted that, given that Yale-NUS failed to meet the endowment target that was planned from the beginning, there seemed to be a “misprojection and miscalculation” of financial targets and estimates.
When the student asked who should be held accountable for this misprojection, Tan replied: “I would say it’s a model that we embarked on. And it’s unfortunate that the model didn’t work.”
“If you want to say, ‘whose fault?’, you can say that perhaps it’s also partly NUS and partly Yale-NUS for being unable to raise the funds. And we tried. We managed to raise less than $90 million. And like I said, it’s not that NUS is not used to fundraising. NUS has to raise $150 million every year to make sure that our budget is sustainable. And I think we’ve been quite lucky that NUS managed to raise that.”
“But it’s just that it’s harder to impress donors on the concept of a liberal arts college.”
Tan’s comments followed Minister Chan’s statement in parliament that Yale-NUS failed to meet the endowment target “through no fault of its own.”
Tan explained that changing Yale-NUS, an autonomous liberal arts college with its own faculty, majors, and modules into an honors college will mean greater financial sustainability due to the reduced cost. The New College would only have to focus on some parts of student academic experience.
“The majors are planned in their respective faculties,” Tan said. “The New College is responsible for the common curriculum, which is about one-third of the module exposure for students. Certainly, I think the cost is manageable. “
Alternatives considered, but not feasible
Tan reiterated that many other alternatives were considered to support Yale-NUS’s financial sustainability.
However, he said that when MOE’s “premium funding” to Yale-NUS ends in 2022, the deficit would be too large to close.
“You really need many iterations of increasing enrollment, cutting financial aid, and increasing class sizes to be able to bring [the deficit] down,” Tan said. “We’ve studied a lot of options, and there’s no viable option but merging or integrating [Yale-NUS] into the university framework.”
Tan added that the possibility of increasing the enrollment to 1500 or 2000 had been raised by Roberts. However, Tan said this was not possible because the existing campus could not accommodate the increased intake.
Previously, Yale-NUS leadership also acknowledged that the fundraising had not been sufficient, which had led the College to retract its need-blind admission policy for international applicants this year.
In an email to The Octant on Sept. 20, Tan Tai Yong, President of Yale-NUS, explained that the change in the college’s admission policy to need-aware for the international applicants in this year’s admission cycle was part of their efforts towards financial sustainability. There had also been increased fundraising and engagement efforts with parents to support the college, but these efforts alone “would not have sufficed.”
Prof. Tan Tai Yong added: “Other options such as further budget cuts, reducing the residential tenure for students and/or scaling Yale-NUS’ cohort size up to a larger and more sustainable intake of about 500 students per annum (similar to other US Liberal Arts College programmes) were also presented to the Yale-NUS Governing Board as options to make the College more financially sustainable.”
This is part one of The Octant’s three-part coverage of the students’ town hall with NUS President Tan Eng Chye on Sept. 28. Part two, which addresses the transition from Yale-NUS to the New College, can be found here. Part three, which addresses the live Q&A section where Prof. Tan dismissed and challenged students’ concerns, can be found here. Follow our Telegram channel and Instagram page for the latest updates.
It has become a cliché universally tired of that the New College seeks to combine the best of its parts. A recent spate of high-profile statements has echoed this claim, from NUS President Tan Eng Chye’s full-page op-ed to Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing’s Parliament speech on Monday. Unfortunately, this is a lofty claim that comes with mountainous challenges that the New College may—or may not—overcome.
The Mirage of Inclusivity
Let’s start with the basics. Inclusivity has been claimed as an essential reason for the “merger” (the de facto closure of Yale-NUS), with Minister Chan Chun Sing and Prof Tan Eng Chye both promising and reiterating a more “inclusive, accessible, and affordable” New College, and “broaden[ing] access to interdisciplinary education” conspicuously displayed in all three statements.
There are two ways to assess accessibility: the total number of students admitted and the opportunities for financially disadvantaged students to attend.
Unfortunately, the first metric falls apart at first glance. The New College is planned to matriculate 500 students per year, and even less for the first year. Yale-NUS’s target cohort size is about 250, and USP between 220 and 240. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see the problem.
But perhaps the New College is inclusive because it enables more underprivileged students to attend? To assess this, let us consider the existing policies. The current Yale-NUS financial aid policy pledges to meet all demonstrated financial need for all admitted students, Singaporean or not. This has its fair share of problems, such as the controversial “student effort contribution” and sometimes inconsistent aid packages. But it still represents a commitment to reduce fees to whatever (they think) a student can afford, with no strings attached.
In contrast, NUS’s financial aid package comprises a patchwork of schemes that tend to rely on repayable loans, have stricter income requirements, and crucially do not promise to cover full need. By NUS’s calculator, a Singaporean “relatively needy student” in the College of Humanities and Sciences can expect to pay $5,515 upfront including residential fees, and more importantly take out $8,200 in loans per year—a considerable sum the student must eventually repay. As a result, underlying the apparently exorbitant fees is the fact that, for those on financial aid, Yale-NUS can actually be more affordable than NUS.
The New College must therefore do better to honor its promise of inclusivity. The problem is that New College does not administer its own major programs, and home faculty fees are charged outside of its control. Indeed, the USP FAQs suggest a student will pay tuition to their home faculty and no additional New College fees, except for a hostel fee. Bound by its nature, even if it fully covers residential fees—current residential colleges do not—faculty fees will likely fall under the jurisdiction of the NUS Office of Financial Aid with its more stringent requirements, unless those are changed university-wide.
Without these changes, even if the New College does subsidize these fees for students, it will have to face questions as to why other home faculty students, enrolled in the exact same course but without the enrichment of the New College, should be subject to a different policy.
And that’s not mentioning international students on financial aid. Our clearest indication yet comes from the op-ed, where Tan describes how “its funding model will be more closely aligned with… our philosophy of providing support for financially disadvantaged Singaporean students.” The conspicuous exclusion of international students from this statement damages his claim that “The New College will be more sustainable, inclusive and accessible to all potential NUS students,” and undermines Chan’s hopes for students to be “more global in orientation and exposure.”
Tan Eng Chye has expressed particular interest in setting up a Common Curriculum. He writes that the New College “will provide a broad-based, interdisciplinary common curriculum to allow students access to many more disciplines – science, engineering, design, law and computing, in addition to the humanities, social sciences and sciences.”
It is clear NUS’s broad vision centers around providing a greater variety of compulsory course offerings. However, this is problematic because NUS home faculties encourage early specialization. Students are able (and sometimes required) to select a course of study at matriculation. The exposure to new areas of study provided by an assortment of compulsory courses before major choice—an important benefit of a common core—is then nullified, and “access to many more disciplines” risks becoming a hindrance.
Other goals of a common curriculum also hang in the balance. Arguably the most important among them is to cultivate wider, intangible awarenesses in addition to subject-specific competence. The Yale-NUS Common Curriculum Review, for example, notes how it helps students develop “intellectual curiosity” and “ability to sit with ambiguity” among a wide gamut of “capacities and broader awarenesses,” and emphasises “the need to coordinate across courses to enhance learning objectives.” While somecolleges adopt an open curriculum that they believe best promotes student engagement, in a curriculum of compulsory courses, how every course can connect with one another to achieve something greater must be carefully considered.
Unfortunately, devising a curriculum that achieves both subject-specific skill and broader qualities takes scrupulous consideration and therefore time. It cannot be achieved by simply piling more courses onto the catalog. The Yale-NUS Common Curriculum took years to plan and continues to be refined, while the USP’s progenitors started as early as 1996, four years before USP was launched.
Tan claimed the New College would take less time because they already have all the faculty they need from Yale-NUS, USP, and the wider NUS, but that ignores the fact that most existing faculty must also handle full-time teaching and research duties. Unless these duties are abandoned, it is unlikely faculty can offer nearly the same time and commitment to the New College as Yale-NUS’s founding faculty did before 2013, even if more can be deployed. Yale-NUS’s Executive Vice President (Academic Affairs) Joanne Roberts also clarified at the parents’ town hall that Yale-NUS faculty with full-time teaching duties would not be expected to contribute to the planning process, directly contradicting Tan’s claim.
Besides, the task they face is also different. Curriculum developers for the New College only have a few short months before the application season to design at least an outline of the curriculum. In these months, they face the onerous task of integrating “the best of” the 22 common core courses in total offered by Yale-NUS and USP, in addition to the “new STEM elements” Tan so favored, into one curriculum that students can comfortably juggle with home faculty requirements while ensuring the curriculum achieves overarching objectives. Is fitting pieces from different puzzles into one picture—while racing against the clock—really so much easier than designing one from scratch?
The key to a liberal arts education also lies in an immersive residential experience, close faculty engagement, and more, as has been so eloquently explored elsewhere. Unfortunately, the new information presented does not present a promising image for what the New College can accomplish. It does not suggest that the New College will represent an enhancement from either existing offering, let alone compensate for the loss of Singapore’s only liberal arts college.
Chan promised a step-up from the USP’s current two-year residential program. However, any residential ambition is necessarily pitched against the infrastructural capacity of the New College compound: around 1,600 beds will eventually be made available to New College students. Assuming an intake of 500 students a year and inevitable vacancies, each student can expect around three years of campus housing.
But arithmetics here ignore some crucial details. The total population of the New College will surpass that of YNC and USP each by about 1,000, so they will necessarily be spread across six or seven residential towers of varying sizes. This is not to mention students will have fewer formal opportunities for interaction, restricted to Common Curriculum classes and (only possibly) student organizations. The impersonal scale and magnified distances of the College will then counteract efforts to replicate and enhance the close-knit communities at existing programs, potentially negating the extra one year (or less) of residential life the “merger” promises.
Chan also claimed the New College would “increase accessibility” to small-group teaching in YNC by opening such seminars to students from all faculties, and diversifying major options for students studying the common curriculum. It is unclear how this is not already achieved by the USP’s small group teaching practices, but the assertion also elides the reduction of options by the “merger”.
Before the “merger”, a prospective student could choose from a wider range of majors by enrolling in the CHS, or personalized instruction in the 14 majors of YNC. However, since all majors in the New College will be hosted by NUS faculties, the “merger” essentially eliminates that choice and forces everyone into the former, when the in-depth study into a major is precisely where, for those who need it, individualized learning is the most important.
A university experience is defined as much by its ability to engage students as its ability to protect them. Over time, the residential communities of YNC and USP have both developed policies tailored to their students’ needs, often after hard-won battles with administrators as the petition argues.
The hard-won gains of students in either institution can be easily lost. The integration of the colleges will mean their consolidation under NUS control, and college-specific policies can be replaced by wider NUS policies whose inadequacies they were meant to supplement in the first place. Yale-NUS, for example, has developed an arguably more sensitive approach to supporting survivors of sexual aggression that informed NUS processes in the past, as well as comprehensive measures to support queer students on campus.
While these student protections should never be exclusive to small communities, the fear is that NUS is uninterested in extending these protections and may simply eliminate, rather than adopt, them as it absorbs these communities. Indeed, all major speeches by relevant decision-makers have ignored these issues entirely. When Yale-NUS’ Dean of Students Dave Stanfield was asked on these policies’ longevity specifically, he could only give his personal commitment to “try to introduce some” of them. That reassures no one.
Minimum Benefits, Maximum Costs
Weighing benefits against costs is the essential part of any decision-making process, and this is no exception. No matter what motivations for the closure there were—financial sustainability, strengthening inclusivity, or else—a participatory, transparent process could have examined possible alternatives to determine the most favorable option from all stakeholders’ points of view.
Unfortunately, NUS, through a top-down process of non-consultation, is determined to pursue a path with minimal reward and maximal cost. As I have shown above, the New College faces arduous and numerous challenges that must be overcome within a compressed timeline to even stand a chance of improving from its predecessors. It bears hefty hopes, but is unlikely to accomplish them without disproportionate efforts that NUS has shown no plans for.
The damage the closure has caused is astronomical. Not only has NUS dealt horrendous blows to the lives of students and faculty alike, but it must also grapple with the reputational self-destruction its decision has inflicted, in Singapore and on the worldstage. If that is not enough, it has become responsible for the erasure of two distinctive, established, and internationally competitive programs from Singapore’s education landscape, with nothing to replace them except a scarcely planned and potentially compromised New College.
This “merger” is not inevitable. It is a human decision, and they made it. The question is— should they have?
Correction: A previous version of the article stated that the total population of the New College would surpass that of YNC and USP, combined, by 1,000. In fact, the population of the New College surpasses that of YNC and USP each by 1,000. We have since made the clarifications in the article.
Story | Ryan Yeo (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
On Sept. 26, alumni from Yale-NUS College released a statement responding to NUS’s decision to close down Yale-NUS. In an email addressed to several media outlets, the alumni said that the statement was presented in solidarity with the #NoMoreTopDown petition by NUS and Yale-NUS students, as well as various statements released by students, parents, and faculty members of Yale-NUS.
Signed by 522 alumni from the Classes of 2017 to 2021 at press time, including 190 of them who signed anonymously, the statement highlighted the unique value proposition of a Liberal Arts College (LAC) education offered at Yale-NUS and questioned the reasons behind the closures of Yale-NUS and the University Scholars Programme (USP).
The value of Yale-NUS: a “different and unique educational option”
In the statement, the alumni noted that the closure of Yale-NUS and USP puts an end to two “great and unique programs.” USP offers a program where students take interdisciplinary USP modules on top of classes in their specific faculty at NUS. The program suits students who want to primarily explore their major in depth, with an interdisciplinary foundation and residential living, the statement says.
Meanwhile, Yale-NUS offers a core curriculum designed to feed directly into majors and minors taken within Yale-NUS, alongside a full four-year residential program, small class sizes, a dedicated set of faculty, and a singular focus on undergraduate education.
The alumni noted that there is a “high and growing demand” for a LAC education in Singapore and Asia. According to the alumni, Yale-NUS graduates are contributing across many spheres in Singapore and across a wide variety of organizations, including in multinational corporations, the public service, banks, big tech, startups, research organizations, the arts, and civil society.
The statement also pointed out that Yale-NUS graduates also had higher starting salaries compared to the national average, and a faster median salary growth rate compared to other universities, in the last four years.
“Yale-NUS’s development has surpassed reasonable expectations for any developed institution, much less one less than a decade old,” the statement read.
“Without a LAC in Singapore, access to a LAC education will be challenging, in particular for lower-income Singaporean students,” the statement continued. The statement pointed out that comparable institutions that offer a LAC education overseas may cost the Singaporean student four times as much as Yale-NUS.
“Additionally, those who do go overseas may not return, thereby exacerbating the brain drain in Singapore,” the statement said. “These are known considerations that MOE highlighted in its 2008 report.”
A premature decision: “Destroying crops before they are ready to harvest”
The alumni statement then questioned the decision to close down Yale-NUS College, given the unique value proposition of a LAC education that the college provides.
The statement read: “If Yale-NUS is a ‘great success,’ as NUS President Tan Eng Chye wrote, it remains unclear why NUS senior management did not simply continue Yale-NUS, without the Yale name, and adjust the institution as necessary.”
The statement also questioned the financial explanation behind the closure of the college, arguing that most liberal arts colleges take “decades” to build strong alumni networks, which contribute to the endowment funding. Top liberal arts colleges in the United States took more than 200 years to build an endowment of more than US$1 billion, the statement said.
“For Yale-NUS to be shut down pre-emptively when most of its first batch of graduates have barely hit the age of 30 is equivalent to destroying crops before they are ready to harvest,” the statement said. “As the last few weeks have shown, our growing alumni network is actively dedicated to maintaining ties with Yale-NUS and ensuring the continued growth of the community.”
“There has also been insufficient information about the projected annual savings from the proposed merger to justify the closure of Yale-NUS.”
The statement then said that the “high-handed” manner in which the decision was made was indicative of an “administrative environment that is hostile to collaboration, growth, and stability across Singapore’s higher education sector.”
The statement continued: “It signals that senior administrators of Singapore’s institutions for higher education are not and may not be willing to provide the stable and collaborative environment that is essential for students, alumni, staff, and faculty to pursue their studies and build their careers.”
Gratitude and Support
The alumni concluded their statement by reaffirming their support for the Yale-NUS community and taking stock of what would be lost with the school’s closure.
The alumni said they were “forever thankful” for the efforts to build up the college by Yale-NUS’s current and former faculty and staff. They also pledged to continue to support current students, and to continue to use their education “productively and passionately, both for [their] own flourishing and in the service of others.”
The statement said: “The loss of Yale-NUS represents the loss of yet another diverse community in Singapore; one where students of varied socioeconomic, religious, ethnic, and educational backgrounds lived, studied, and learnt together. More than a decade’s worth of hard work by students, alumni, parents, educators, and staff, not to mention the significant public monies invested, will be lost.”
Xie Yihao, an alumnus from the Class of 2017, said: “It has been almost a month since the announcement and we still don’t have any clear answers, even honest attempts from the top NUS leadership to explain the rationale and decision making process.”
“They instead appear to play divide and conquer, and want to wear out our patience. It is disrespectful and disappointing to say the least.”
Story | Siddharth Mohan Roy (he/him), Contributing Reporter Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
All the Week 7 projects this semester, slated to start tomorrow, have been canceled, Beth Uding, Associate Director for Experiential Learning for Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE), announced in an email to the Class of 2025 yesterday. The Week 7 graduation requirement will also be waived for all first-year students.
Uding said the “difficult decision” was made to comply with the heightened Covid-19 restrictions in Singapore announced by the Ministry of Health this Friday (Sept. 24). Taking effect from tomorrow (Sept. 27) until Oct. 24, group sizes for social gathering were cut from five to two. In addition, groups of up to two will be allowed to dine in at regular food and beverage establishments if both diners are fully vaccinated.
Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LABs) are faculty-led co-curricular projects designed by CIPE to allow faculty to share their scholarship with first-year students outside of the classroom and create an opportunity for students to explore the curriculum in broader, real-world contexts. Earlier Week 7 programs saw students going to places such as Bali, Switzerland, and India.
Usually held in the first semester of the academic year, CIPE postponed the previous iteration of Week 7 to Semester 2 due to prevailing COVID-19 restrictions in the first semester.
According to CIPE, the new restrictions made it unfeasible to continue with their original Week 7 plans. They had considered alternatives, but did not have enough time to rework the projects to transition to a classroom or virtual setting, given the timing of the announcement.
Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, told The Octant that Yale-NUS’s official vaccination rate is at 80%. The actual rate is likely to be higher, he said, because some fully vaccinated students who were vaccinated overseas have not uploaded their vaccination certificates into uNivUS.
In a separate email sent exactly a month ago (August 25) to international students from the Class of 2025 who were studying virtually, CIPE announced that students who were unable to enter Singapore to participate in Week 7 programs would also receive a waiver for the Week 7 graduation requirement.
On August 30, in response to queries on whether Week 7 projects could be postponed instead of canceled, CIPE explained in another email to e-learners from the Class of 2025 that the uncertainty surrounding the New College meant that a postponement to the next academic year “[did] not make sense,” and that a waiver was the best solution at the time. Uding did not mention the possibility of postponing the program to the next semester.
Several students on campus expressed their frustrations toward the cancellation.
Koh Hekang ‘25was disappointed by the cancellation of Week 7 projects. “It’s bad timing and pure bad luck,” he lamented. “I really hope that we can still get to do our Week 7 in Semester 2. Hopefully by then, the international students who weren’t able to fly to Singapore will be able to join us, and we’d all be able to experience Week 7 together.”
Daniel Thomas ’25 said while he understood that the College has to comply with the existing regulations, his “real disappointment comes with the government outside.”
Theo Young, a freshman from Canada, had been looking forward to learning more about Singaporean society through Week 7. He said: “I feel cheated out of the true Yale-NUS experience yet again. First with COVID restrictions, then the merger, and now the Week 7 cancellation. I am sad to say that my college experience has not been fully what I dreamed it to be yet.”
“However,” he added, “I think that ‘yet’ is important. These challenges that we have been facing are only setbacks, not earthquakes. Making this year great is still very much possible, and I look forward to playing as big a part in doing that for others as much as I can.”
Story | Michael Sagna (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Darren Ang (he/him)
Two Covid-19 cases have been confirmed on campus. Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students announced the first in an email to students on the morning of Sept. 26. The following day, Stanfield confirmed another case. The second case, he explained, was a suitemate of the first. These are the college’s second and third cases on campus respectively since the start of the pandemic, after a Covid case was discovered in late April.
The first student, an Elm College resident, is symptomatic and stayed at the college during recess week, Dr. Stanfield explained in his email. It is expected that they will be transferred to a medical facility soon, though exactly when is unknown. The case’s close contacts were contacted, and likely received a government-mandated Quarantine Order, which lasts for 10 days after the latest interaction with the infected person.
Under an NUS-wide policy, Yale-NUS students and NUS students residing on campus who are vaccinated were previously expected to self-administer antigen rapid tests on a monthly basis. Unvaccinated students were required to administer the tests weekly. The email did not mention the student’s vaccination status.
However, in an email from NUS sent to students on Sept. 30, it was announced that all vaccinated hostel residents will now have to self-test on a weekly basis, with tests to be taken every Sunday. For unvaccinated residents, this requirement will be twice a week, on Sundays and Wednesdays.
In recent communication with The Octant, Stanfield said that the college’s official vaccination rate was 80%. Despite this, he explained that some students were vaccinated abroad, and have yet to upload their vaccination certificates to uNivUS, NUS’s proprietary student management application. For this reason, Stanfield suspects that the actual rate is slightly higher.
When last year’s case was uncovered in Cendana Tower A, the case’s close contacts were taken to NUS’s Prince George’s Park Residences to serve their government-sanctioned quarantine order. In addition, the entire tower where the student had been residing, Cendana Tower A, was quarantined for a 7-day period to ensure that there had been no linked infections.
In an email to students, Stanfield explained that “The protocols for Covid-19 case management have evolved since our last suspected case several months ago. We do not anticipate needing to place the Elm tower on LOA as of now unless the situation evolves, and the authorities decide otherwise.”
Nevertheless, the locations visited by either of the contacts have been closed since the cases were discovered, awaiting deep cleaning before they can be used. These areas include Elm’s buttery and outdoor seating area, the fitness centre, and the multi-purpose hall.
“In the meantime,” Stanfield wrote, “we urge all students to stay calm, monitor your health closely and be attentive to further updates from the College. Please practice social responsibility and see a doctor immediately if you are unwell to prevent further spread.”
Recently, there has been a significant rise in cases in Singapore, with the country reporting 1,443 cases on Sept. 25. Restrictions are also being tightened, with a return to an in-person dining cap of two vaccinated people effective from Sept. 27, as the government warns cases could more than double to 3,200 per day by next week.
The information in this article was last updated on 30th September.
Story | Michael Sagna (he/him), Managing Editor Photo | Joshua Vargas (he/him)
Last Saturday (Sept. 18), The Octant received an unofficial statement from some members of the Yale-NUS faculty condemning the college’s closure. The 20-page document expresses concern about the college’s closure and the proposed new college, incorporating a two-and-a-half-page list of “[o]utstanding questions” about the merger. The faculty responsible for its writing hope that the paper will serve as an open letter to the Ministry of Education, the NUS Board of Trustees, and Yale-NUS’s own governing board.
The statement was authored through what faculty described as “an informal sharing process,” and is, as a result, only representative of a group of concerned faculty, rather than the college’s faculty in its entirety. Nevertheless, the document represents the first public statement by members of faculty since the announcement of the merger on August 27.
The Value of Yale-NUS College
The piece places an emphasis on the value of Yale-NUS College, situating it as the only liberal arts college in the Singaporean educational landscape.
“Continuing Yale-NUS College,” the faculty write, “would preserve this successful, well-established model for interdisciplinary undergraduate education, enhance the Singaporean tertiary education system, and maintain the range of options for local students with diverse interests and academic trajectories.”
NUS President Tan Eng Chye has written the proposed “New College” will seek to “amplify, not diminish, the Yale-NUS story.”
By outlining the four key characteristics of a liberal arts college (see table 1) the faculty compares the educational offerings of Yale-NUS, NUS’s College of Humanities and Sciences, the University Scholars Programme, and the New College’s proposed model.
In doing so, they argue that Yale-NUS’ offering is unique, meaning that “merging Yale-NUS into a two year Honours College program will eliminate a thriving and home-grown small liberal arts college from the Singaporean higher educational landscape.”
The faculty further cite higher median starting salaries for Yale-NUS graduates relative to their NUS peers as an indicator of the college’s success, while also commenting on the diverse range of fields alumni work in, like social impact, nonprofits, and NGOs, in addition to sectors like the public sector and consulting.
Yale-NUS Bachelor of Arts graduates have a median starting salary of $3,890, as compared to $3,500 for NUS Bachelor of Social Sciences and Bachelor of Arts graduates. This difference is more pronounced in the case of Yale-NUS’s Bachelor of Science graduates, who average $5,350, as compared to NUS Bachelor of Computing graduates at $5,243 and Bachelor of Science graduates at $3,528.
The faculty write: “Yale-NUS graduates earn a high starting salary upon graduation and have a high rate of employment within six months, some at top international firms such as Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Oliver Wyman, and in local companies, and many have joined the Singapore public service…”
Likewise, they list a series of prestigious postgraduate education programs that Yale-NUS students have been admitted to in the college’s short history as a means of demonstrating the college’s educational prowess.
The statement criticizes the lack of consultation in the decision-making process, before expressing confusion that “the leadership of Yale and NUS also offered conflicting explanations.” They reference NUS President Tan’s Straits Times opinion piece which centers on finances, contradicting Yale’s account that financing was not the primary reason for the closure.
Furthermore, the statement directly addresses two objectives for higher education, outlined by Education Minister Chan Chun Sing in Parliament, namely: 1) That students are “global in their perspective, much more able to apply interdisciplinary approach [sic] to problem solving,” and 2) That the “whole experience in our universities is much more inclusive, much more affordable…”
“Yale-NUS already provides an innovative, outstanding interdisciplinary undergraduate education custom-designed for Singapore with a global perspective by a diverse faculty,” the statement reads.
“Its commitment to financial aid and thoughtful holistic admissions have created an exceptionally diverse student body where a global mindset is fostered through daily interactions in residential life, in its wide range of study abroad opportunities, high profile international visitors, and its ambitious, community-minded alumni all over the world.”
Impact on Students, Community, and Faculty
The statement concludes by outlining the impacts of the closure on three key stakeholders, namely students, community, and faculty.
For the community at large, the statement argues that the decision has “imposed unprecedented emotional and mental burdens on all members of our community.”
Faculty address the impact on the integrity of the Yale-NUS experience on students, writing that “there will be an unprecedented amount of uncertainty about basic aspects of their education.” They also discuss possible professional implications, before arguing that “the years of hard work that our students put into building the College have been rendered meaningless” by the closure.
According to the statement, faculty at the college will also be impacted. Despite NUS promising to honor all contracts, the statement emphasizes the different academic cultures, arguing that “faculty are being moved to an entirely different kind of institution after a decision that came without any stakeholder consultation.”
In addition, faculty write about the uncertainty they face regarding tenure, which, for the 60% of professors at Yale-NUS who are not currently tenured, is a major concern. Tenure will be difficult to achieve for some considering that their departments do not even exist at NUS. For those who do wish to pursue tenure, despite assurances from NUS that the tenure process will remain the same to 2025, faculty worry that they might be evaluated with an eye on future redistribution to NUS departments.