UP CLOSE | At Yale-NUS, a campus culture in the making

The Yale-NUS campus is slated to be completed in 2015. Until then, students will live in a NUS dorm.
The Yale-NUS campus is slated to be completed in 2015. Until then, students will live in a NUS dorm. Photo by Yale-NUS.

On a hot afternoon in June, over 20,000 Singaporeans gathered at the Speakers’ Corner in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park to celebrate the country’s LGBTQ community. At least a dozen of the activists were freshmen at the newly opened Yale-NUS College.

The Yale-NUS students at the Pink Dot rally — an annual event that draws thousands of Singaporean LGBTQ rights supporters to the only stretch of land in the country where public demonstrations are allowed without a permit — attended as members of “The G Spot,” a group they had informally founded earlier that month with several students from the National University of Singapore to tackle issues concerning sexuality as well as gender, feminism, race, social class and disability.

“We’re queer, and we’re finally here,” reads the group’s first description on both its official website and Facebook page.

During the event, “The G Spot” members met up with other Yale-NUS students, professors and staff members for a picnic funded by the Yale-NUS student activities fund. The group’s appearance took place almost two months before classes at the new Singaporean liberal arts college began on Aug. 12. Since then, its presence on campus has expanded significantly.

A few days after Yale-NUS’s 155 freshmen arrived on campus last month, “The G Spot” distributed sex education materials and condoms in student dorms. Last week, several group members attended a reading of LGBTQ literature by Singaporean writers such as Jasmine Ann Cooray and Jason Wee that took place off-campus. On Tuesday, the group hosted a talk by Singaporean LGBTQ activists Jean Chong and Ng Yi-Sheng titled “Southeast Gaysia — LGBT Issues in the ASEAN Region” that was held in the students’ residential building.

According to “The G Spot” members and Yale-NUS administrators, no one has spoken out against the group’s existence or activities thus far.

“Singapore does have a law on the books that makes sex between gay men illegal, but it is not enforced,” Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis said. “There are a lot of pro-LGBTQ organizations here that operate without government interference, and we expect “The G  Spot” to be able to operate in any way it likes.”

Though administrators of Yale-NUS, a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore conceived in 2009, have reiterated the college’s commitment to academic freedom and nondiscrimination on campus stated in its charter, many critics of the venture believe that the setting of the school undermines that commitment.

One month into college life in Singapore, however, Yale-NUS students testify to a different reality.

About 20 members of the Yale-NUS community interviewed, including students, professors and dean’s fellows — Yale-NUS’s version of Yale’s freshman counselors — said they have either participated in or heard discussions about controversial issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to media censorship, both in and out of the classroom. Most of them cited the existence of “The G Spot” as a rebuttal of critics’ claims that Singaporean authorities will censor student activities at Yale-NUS.

But some who have experienced life at Yale-NUS said they have struggled with several aspects of the institution. Keith Darden, a former Yale-NUS professor who taught in the Political Science and Ethics, Politics and Economics departments at Yale before joining the inaugural Yale-NUS faculty, resigned from the institution in March on grounds that professors do not have enough say in the institution’s governance.

One month after the school’s opening, members of the Yale-NUS inaugural class said they feel responsible for whether the experiment of constructing a liberal arts college in Singapore will succeed. Some students said reading articles arguing against their institution angers them, and some said they have stopped paying attention to critics altogether.

“Hearing all the controversy and seeing the students is just such a juxtaposition,” said Adriana Ortiz ’13, a dean’s fellow at the college. “It is hard for the students to know that so many people are arguing against the school when they know that at home, on the ground level, it’s working.”

 

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Anne Caroline Franklin, a freshman at Yale-NUS, wakes up around 7 a.m. in her dorm room in RC4, the still nameless residential college where students are being housed until construction on the Yale-NUS campus is completed in 2015. On her way to her first lecture at 8:45 a.m. she glances at a giant white board positioned right outside the building’s common room, onto which members of all Yale-NUS student groups scribble down the time and place of their meetings and open practices.

Once class ends at 5:45 p.m., Franklin, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the United World College in Swaziland, usually attends meetings of an a-capella group, a sketching club and “The G Spot.”

Willie Khoo, a Singaporean freshman, said he has tried to be spontaneous when choosing which groups to join, adding that he has volunteered for an Indian dance group in an effort to “expand [his] comfort zone.”

Examples of student groups that currently meet at Yale-NUS are debate clubs, literary societies, a film appreciation society, a dragon boating club, an a capella group, dance groups and a Model United Nations club, among others.

Khoo described his typical day as “striking a balance between studies, social life and trying to participate in residential college activities.”

Franklin said she thinks the college community does a particularly good job “bridging the academic and non-academic” aspects of students’ lives. When students had to read the Hindu epic “The Ramayana” for class, a professor organized an optional screening of the movie “Sita Sings the Blues,” which refers to several episodes from the epic. Dean’s Fellows often organize events such as “pizza night” or “waffle night,” during which students combine socializing and debating their readings.

“I’ve never been in a situation where people are so eager to continue conversations from the class- room,” Franklin said. “We will be debating human nature or conservatism, and at most schools when you try to talk about that outside of class people will tell you to leave it in the classroom, but not here. People stay up until 2 a.m. talking about these things and doing work together.”

 

A DISTINCT IDENTITY

Some Yale-NUS students interviewed said they consider the Yale community, which they experienced during a three-week long pre-orientation program that took place at Yale in August, a model for the community they are trying to create in Singapore.

Swedish freshman Adrian Stymne said he had a mixed reaction when he found out the pre-orientation program for the Singaporean college would take place in New Haven.

“I was like, ‘I chose Yale-NUS, not Yale,’” Stymne said.

But after a couple of days at Yale, he said, he understood the importance of Yale-NUS students spending time in New Haven. Stymne said he could “feel the sense of community pouring from the walls,” adding that the pre-orientation gave Yale-NUS students an idea of “what [they] could become in a while.”

“I think we will start off by taking many elements from Yale and NUS,” said Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn. “We wanted to expose students to Yale precisely so that they can take the parts they liked and adapt them to their new institution.”

Some Yale-NUS students and faculty interviewed said the new liberal arts college is already stepping out of the shadows of its parent institutions. Others recognize that the college may need a few years to carve out a separate niche, particularly because students still share their cafeteria and residential college building with NUS while the Yale-NUS campus is under construction.

“This is a very young institution, obviously, so it will take a few years — and a few graduating classes that will constitute the beginnings of an alumni body — for it to become a truly established institution,” University President Peter Salovey said in an email to the News.

Yale French and African American Studies professor Christopher Miller, an outspoken critic of Yale-NUS, said he is skeptical that the new institution aims to be independent from Yale and NUS. He referenced Yale-NUS’s decision to attract more applicants by placing an option to apply to Yale-NUS on Yale’s application as well as the presence of many Yale professors at the new school in Singapore.

Franklin said she expects the school’s identity to evolve over the next several years as Yale-NUS becomes physically independent from its neighbor. Though she said she enjoys interacting with NUS students on a daily basis, Franklin said she is looking forward to her school having “a bit more autonomy.”

Despite the school’s close ties with Yale and NUS, students, professors and dean’s fellows interviewed said that they already feel the school’s culture is much different from the cultures of either of its parent institutions.

Several students said their adventurous spirit most distinguishes them from freshmen at any other college around the world. Most of them said they rejected offers from Ivy League and liberal arts schools in the United States and around the world to come to Singapore and start an institution from scratch.

“This is an experiment — it’s not a tried and tested formula, yet we rejected offers from prestigious universities … to come here,” Franklin said. “If we can maintain this adventurous, risk-taking spirit throughout our years [at Yale-NUS], it will be the main thing that will distinguish us from anyone else.”

 

A TABOO-FREE CULTURE

Darden said he thinks the Yale-NUS debate has mistakenly focused on whether students will have enough academic freedom to sustain a liberal arts institution.

The real problem, he said, is that the school was designed without any significant faculty involvement — an issue that he said interferes with Yale-NUS’s liberal arts spirit.

“Yale-NUS looks more like a bureaucratic, hierarchical arm of NUS than like the autonomous liberal arts college it aspires to be,” he said.

Darden added that the college community functions within the framework of a “centralized, opaque and easily-politicized bureaucracy” — a major issue discussed at Yale-NUS faculty meetings over the past year and one that led to his resignation.

Lewis and Bailyn dismissed Darden’s claims. Bailyn said that some Yale-NUS professors have expressed concerns about excess bureaucracy at the school, but added that such concerns exist at all institutions, including Yale. He said he does not think Darden’s claims represent the views of any current Yale-NUS faculty members.

Still, Darden said he thinks Yale-NUS is a great place to be a student and that Yale-NUS freshmen are engaged, questioning and curious.

Professors, dean’s fellows and administrators interviewed said they hear students discuss all elements of Singaporean life on a daily basis, which they said reflects the college’s open atmosphere.

“It’s baffling and alienating to read blog posts and such saying that students here can’t discuss and debate whatever they please,” said Andrew Bailey, philosophy professor at Yale-NUS. Bailey regularly overhears students in the cafeteria passionately discussing Singaporean politics, media reporting and same-sex marriage.

Yale-NUS humanities professor Matthew Walker said that while his course, “Philosophy and Political Thought,” does not explicitly focus on current issues related to politics and sexuality, his students have discussed classical Confucian views in relation to issues such as coming out. He added that he has debated Section 377A as well as Singaporean policies regulating public assembly with students outside of class.

Dean’s Fellow Ryan Huynh, who graduated from Princeton in 2011 and taught at a local school in Singapore for three semesters before coming to Yale-NUS, said he thinks some of the topics tackled openly at the college, such as sexuality, would be considered taboos at most other schools in Singapore and the region.

This week, all students are analyzing both sides of the same-sex marriage debate for one of their courses, “Comparative Social Institutions.” Each student will then write an essay on the impact of same-sex marriage on the definition of family.

Miller said the freedoms students at the college are enjoying at the moment do not surprise him, adding that the effects of Section 377A are felt throughout Singaporean society even though the government states it does not enforce the law directly.

“It was clearly part of the Singapore government’s plan to bring in a certain measure and a certain semblance of carefully modulated freedom through the device of Yale-NUS,” Miller said. “All of this — the entire expensive enterprise of Yale-NUS — serves the interests of the PAP regime, at least for now.”

Almost all faculty members interviewed said they are familiar with the initiatives of “The G Spot,” and “The G Spot” members said several Yale-NUS faculty members have personally expressed their support for the group. Yale-NUS social science professor Bernard Bate said he thinks Yale-NUS professors are proud of the group’s growing presence on campus and Walker said he thinks “The G Spot” offers a broad support network for LGBTQ students throughout Singapore.

Miller said he thinks Yale-NUS students and their groups exist in a bubble that will burst immediately if students’ activism crosses over into demonstration or protest.

“If the students of Yale-NUS mount a demonstration for the abolition of 377A, I will salute them —and hope they don’t get caned,” Miller said.

 

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Most members of the inaugural class interviewed said they are conscious of bearing the future of Yale-NUS on their shoulders, adding that the constant public scrutiny motivates them to do their best but can sometimes feel overwhelming.

“Students are conscious that this is an institution under scrutiny and that the things they do will have repercussions for the future,” Bailyn said. “Everybody is working like mad, and to be honest at a rate that’s kind of unsustainable.”

Zula Badral, a freshman from Denver, Colo., who said she did not know about Yale-NUS until she shared her Yale application with the new college through the check-box option, said Yale-NUS students are expected to create student groups and communities that will last for the next hundreds of years. The impressive caliber of students and professors she has met at the school, she said, makes her confident they can create a sustainable institution.

“Tenure-track professors at very good schools left their jobs to be a part of what we are creating,” Badral said. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I wasn’t nearly as excited by the acceptance letters of schools in the U.S. as I was by my acceptance letter from Yale-NUS. I turned down Stanford and Georgetown to come here.”

Franklin said she thinks the responsibility of creating a vibrant campus culture for current students and for future generations motivates her classmates to work even harder than they normally would. But on a daily basis, Franklin said she can be so consumed by her classes and other activities that she often forgets she is a member of the college’s first class.

“During our inauguration ceremony, someone asked [former Yale President] Richard Levin what he expects from us,” Khoo said. “He just told us we shouldn’t feel any pressure, we should do things we normally wouldn’t do and defy expectations. He challenged us to go on a journey of personal self-discovery with no pressure.”

 

 

AN AGENT OF CHANGE?

But some students, particularly the Singaporeans, expect Yale-NUS to do more than simply launch them on a personal intellectual journey. They believe in the college’s potential to gradually change Singaporeans’ outlook on education.

Huynh said he thinks Yale-NUS graduates will defy the region’s widespread belief in specialized education because the school’s liberal arts model emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to learning.

“I think in the long run Yale-NUS really has an opportunity to revolutionize education in Singapore and the region,” said Khoo, who is Singaporean. “Coming from the typical mainstream education route, I have always found it a bit too competitive, and after coming to Yale-NUS, I have realized that people can genuinely be interested in learning for learning’s sake. I hope Yale-NUS can spread that idea.”

Lewis said he is in touch with representatives from multiple universities in the region — such as the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and the Chinese University of Hong Kong — to discuss potential collaborative projects.

Robert Kamei, the vice dean of education at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, said he thinks Yale-NUS will need to demonstrate that its liberal arts approach can develop students’ skills, given the Singaporeans’ practical outlook on education.

“Whereas a medical degree is a clear path toward a productive career, a liberal arts background may be seen as less direct,” he said.

Franklin said she thinks the college will exert its influence on a micro scale through Yale-NUS students’ and professors’ interactions with Singaporeans. She said she hopes Yale-NUS students can influence Singaporeans’ attitudes toward pedagogy and persuade them to shift away from the “cut-throat hierarchy of test-scores.”

Vice-president of the Yale Club of Singapore Shawn Tan ’01 said citizens of Singapore and its surrounding region consider medicine, banking and law as fields that all graduates should try to pursue professionally, while other, less well-paid careers remain on the sidelines. He added that he thinks Yale-NUS’s liberal arts approach has the potential to change such notions, but that it will not be an easy process.

“It’s a ridiculously crazy cycle here — there is an obsession about numbers,” Tan said. “Yale-NUS is definitely a step in the right direction. It may be an indication that something will change in the future, but there is no guarantee.”

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