NUS program pioneers liberal arts

The Yale-NUS campus design aims to integrate elements of Yale’s collegiate style and traditional Singaporean features.
The Yale-NUS campus design aims to integrate elements of Yale’s collegiate style and traditional Singaporean features. Photo by Yale-NUS.

While administrators have said Yale-NUS will help spread liberal arts in Asia, the focus on interdisciplinary studies will not be entirely new when the jointly run Singaporean college opens in fall 2013.

The National University of Singapore’s University Scholars Programme (USP), established in 2001, allows students the opportunity to spend 30 percent of their coursework in a field outside of their major — an uncommonly large proportion in Singapore, where colleges generally have a more vocational approach. Yale administrators said they have consulted with USP professors and administrators in building the faculty and curriculum for Yale-NUS, though they said the new college will feature a more expansive liberal arts curriculum.

John Richardson, the program’s director, said the program initially struggled to draw students, partly because students worried how potential employers would view their education. University administrators have also said in the past that they will pay special attention to career services at Yale’s new college to help graduates navigate the job market with a liberal arts degree.

But Richardson said a successful and supportive alumni base has given the program a strong reputation.

“We… have had to work hard at ensuring that potential students know what we have to offer,” Richardson said in a Monday email, “but once they know that, they see the point of USP quite readily.”

The honors program, which will continue after Yale-NUS opens, offers slots to only 150 of NUS’s roughly 26,000 students. The participants live in a residential college with a design similar to those planned for Yale-NUS and take seminar classes with roughly 10 to 35 students.

University President Richard Levin said the program’s success suggests the potential for liberal arts to flourish in Singapore on a larger scale.

“I think it shows that even before starting the venture with Yale, there was serious interest in moving towards the liberal arts in Singapore,” Levin said.

Charles Bailyn, Yale-NUS inaugural dean of faculty, said that administrators of the Yale-NUS and the USP have worked closely in recent months to develop plans for the new college, and several USP professors are serving on the committee that will select the college’s faculty.

Bailyn added that a USP course on AIDS taught by George Bishop, a professor in the USP, was the model for one of Yale-NUS’s core curriculum courses, “Current Issues in Science and Social Science.”

Penelope Laurans, master of Jonathan Edwards College and special advisor to the University president, said she visited the program in 2008 — before discussions began over Yale-NUS — for a peer evaluation and found that students, faculty and alumni working in Singapore seemed to value their experiences in the program.

But Laurans said Yale-NUS — which will eventually have 1,000 students taking two-thirds of classes in fields outside of their majors — will emphasize liberal arts more than the USP.

“The models have similarities, but their emphases are slightly different: One is a program integrated into already existing University structure; the other is an entirely new college which uses the resources of a major university,” Laurans said in a Sunday email. “The new college is an extension of the USP idea.”

Yale-NUS’s inaugural class will have 150 students, and it will not reach its total capacity of 1,000 students until the 2016-’17 school year.

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