Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus. This is part one of a three-part series. (Read part 2 and part 3.)
SINGAPORE — In the years to come, Yale will take on a new meaning here, nearly 10,000 miles from New Haven, when the University launches the first college bearing its name since the Collegiate School became Yale University nearly 300 years ago. Through a partnership with the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS College is slated to open in the fall of 2013 in an attempt to bring the liberal arts model to Asia.
When University President Richard Levin and University Provost Peter Salovey first announced the project in September 2010, a small group of professors objected to Yale’s decision to open a jointly run campus in a nation that they said could not support the University’s values.
That debate intensified in New Haven earlier this month when roughly 150 professors gathered at the Yale College faculty meeting for nearly three hours to hear colleagues voice concern about Yale-NUS. The tensions at the faculty meeting had reverberations across the Pacific, as many Singaporeans began questioning Yale’s long-term commitment to the project. Students interviewed at NUS and prospective Yale-NUS applicants asked whether the news they had heard — that some members of the Yale community do not approve of the partnership with NUS — was true, and how invested Yale is in the project.
Though administrators at both schools have reaffirmed their commitment and moved forward with planning the college, many students, faculty and others following the project have continued to wonder: Why is Yale naming a campus abroad, and why in Singapore?
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Since Yale-NUS College was first announced, officials at Yale have repeatedly assured faculty, students and staff that their agreement with NUS allows Yale to withdraw its name and support from the joint college at any time, if needed. Levin said in a Sunday email that this type of agreement is typical of a partnership or joint venture between institutions.
“If disagreements were to arise, there would first be an attempt to reconcile them before separating,” Levin wrote. “But Yale has the right to terminate its involvement and the use of its name, if it becomes necessary. Both parties hope and expect that such action will never be necessary.”
Considering Yale reserves the right to terminate the contract and in light of the recent controversy, several prospective Yale-NUS students have expressed concern over whether the collaboration will last.
“I understand there is negative sentiment on the Yale campus — what happens if I get in and this intensifies?” one student asked an admissions representative at a Yale-NUS open house on March 17. “The name of Yale is very important — you could see how the degree becomes compromised without it.”
There is also precedent for international campuses failing in Singapore: Due to enrollment and budget problems with its parent university in Australia, the University of New South Wales in Singapore closed in June 2007, just one semester after it opened.
But that school was only partially sponsored by the Singaporean government, which is fully financing Yale’s venture.
Ng Cher Pong, deputy secretary for Singapore’s Ministry of Education and a member of the Yale-NUS Board of Governors, said both Singaporean students and employers have expressed “tremendous interest” in implementing a pure “liberal arts model for Asia.” The ministry was never looking to “import wholesale” a liberal arts model from New Haven, Ng said, but rather to partner with a school that could help Singapore develop an educational system that would produce a greater “diversity of talents and experiences.”
Nearly all of 27 Singaporean students interviewed said the greatest benefit of Yale-NUS is its association with the Yale name.
“For a student going to Yale-NUS, it’s really probably because there’s a Yale name there and they think it will be able to get them jobs,” said Wang Yufei, a student at Raffles Institution, an elite junior college from which Yale-NUS hopes to recruit students. “A big part Yale-NUS is the name itself.”
Still, Yale-NUS is beginning to create its own iconography and traditions. At a special Yale-NUS prospective student workshop earlier this month, about 40 top applicants were invited to design possible crests for the school’s residential colleges — currently referred to as RC1, RC2 and RC3, which Yale-NUS inaugural Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn said may be named by donors. The school has selected its colors — Yale Blue and NUS Orange — but has not yet picked a crest, mascot or fight song.
Despite the advantages of the Yale name, some Singaporean students still question how Yale will shape the curriculum at Yale-NUS. Others claim that some applicants might be mainly interested in attending Yale-NUS for its association with the Yale brand, regardless of the liberal arts model.
“There’s a cynical response and then there’s an excited response,” prospective student Linus Seoh said. “The cynical response is people are just jumping on the Yale bandwagon.”
Even if Yale continues to support the project, the college’s name may not include “Yale” or “NUS” in 10 or so years, Bailyn said. Just as Yale College adopted the name of Elihu Yale after he donated nine bales of goods, a collection of books and a portrait of King George I in 1718, Bailyn said a substantial donor to Yale-NUS could also potentially cause the institution to be renamed.
“If somebody comes along and gives us 100 million or half a billion dollars, I think we’d have to consider it,” Bailyn said. “I have to say, that old Elihu Yale, he got a good deal cheap.”
A ‘HUB CITY’ FOR GLOBAL LEARNING
Supporters of the new college in Singapore and New Haven have pointed to many benefits the country can offer Yale or any university looking to expand to Asia — the highly educated population, a booming economy, and ethnic and religious diversity.
“[Singapore] is very influenced by the migration from China, India, Southeast Asia and other places,” said Abby Adlerman SOM ’86, an American citizen living in Singapore, who has consulted several universities on international partnerships in the country. “[There is] a very rich culture here that people don’t appreciate until they get here.”
Roughly 75 percent of Singaporean citizens are of Chinese descent, according to the country’s 2011 census, and Indians and Malays each account for about 10 percent of the population.
With a large population of expatriates from Japan, the United States and Europe, noncitizens make up 20 percent of the island’s population. Other foreign nationals are from developing nations in Asia, such as Bangladesh. The nation has an even greater religious diversity, and it is not uncommon to see a mosque across the street from a Buddhist temple or a Christian church.
Shawn Tan ’01, vice president of the Yale Club of Singapore, said Singapore’s cultural and religious diversity is invaluable in attracting an international pool of students and donors to Yale-NUS. Although the majority of Yale-NUS students will hail from Singapore, the college aims to enroll students from across Asia and the world, Yale-NUS Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan ’03 told the News in September.
“Yale-NUS will give Singapore more potential to attract students from the region, especially from India and China,” Tan said, calling the country a “neutral ground” for students of diverse backgrounds.
Though Singapore was a “sleepy backwater town” in its earlier years, Tan said the government has transformed the island from a trading port to a “hub city” for industries such as biotechnology, banking and medical tourism over the past few decades.
Now, the country is working to offer more academic opportunities. Singaporean universities, with help from the Ministry of Education, have already partnered with more than 20 leading universities from the United States, Europe and Australia, and in 2009, administrators at NUS approached Yale with a proposal for what has become Yale-NUS.
Singapore is widely known as “Asia light,” a mix of Asian and Western cultures. English is the country’s most common spoken language, crime is low and the island’s health care is among the best in the world.
The country’s cleanliness and order comes at a price — littering fines can reach $1,000 and jaywalking can lead to arrest. Peter Lees SOM ’06, a board member of the Yale Club of Singapore, said the stereotype of Singapore as “bland, manufactured and boring,” is changing as the country becomes more livable.
But Tan, Adlerman and others living in Singapore say the country’s culture might help Yale and its faculty to adjust to the region.
“Singapore is a place with training wheels to do this,” said Nicky Nole ’06, events coordinator for the Yale Club of Singapore.
A GROWING TREND
Yale’s move into Singapore comes at a time when major American institutions — New York University, Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago, among others — have established partnerships or dual degree programs in the country.
Levin said Yale officials did not have a specific plan in mind before NUS administrators approached them in early 2009 with the offer to help build an entirely new campus in Singapore. But the University was seeking a “major initiative abroad” to advance Yale’s international standing.
Still, several Yale faculty have questioned if the University “sold out” in partnering with NUS, as well as if Yale is expanding for the sake of expansion. Mark Oppenheimer, a Yale lecturer in the Political Science Department, said he is “generally skeptical about the globalization fetish” and academic “gold rush” in Singapore.
In the initial Yale-NUS prospectus that Levin and Salovey sent to the Yale College faculty in September 2010, they predicted that “most of the world’s leading universities” would have campuses abroad by the year 2050.
While some existing programs in Singapore grant degrees from their home institutions, Yale-NUS diplomas will bear the words “Yale-NUS College” but be issued solely by NUS.
But changing those arrangements is not without precedent.
Patrick Casey, senior vice dean of research at Duke-NUS, said the school’s degrees were originally to be awarded by NUS, but the Duke board decided to grant joint degrees instead because they were confident in the school’s “Duke quality.”
University Vice President Linda Lorimer said for Yale-NUS to grant a “real Yale degree” would require a vote of approval from the Yale College faculty.
In a March 3 email to a group of Yale College faculty that political science lecturer Jim Sleeper provided to the News, film studies and American studies professor Charles Musser suggested that Yale faculty reevaluate in six to 10 years whether the University should issue Yale-NUS degrees along with NUS, or whether Yale should remove its name from the project entirely.
Though Yale professors have criticized Levin for moving ahead with Yale-NUS without adequately consulting the faculty, Levin has maintained that the decision to open the new college ultimately rested with the Corporation.
“It would take a violent human rights violation in Singapore to convince the Yale administration to withdraw,” said Christopher Miller, a professor of African American studies and French at Yale and an outspoken critic of the venture. “Faculty protests alone are unlikely to do so.”
Levin said Yale plans to monitor the college through a standing consultative committee, composed of half Yale and half NUS faculty, and through an annual report that the president of Yale-NUS will deliver to the Yale Corporation. He added that the Corporation plans to conduct an official review of the college three and six years into the venture.
NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan said administrators at Yale-NUS are focusing on the school’s quality before any changes to the diploma, though he added that these could be possible in the future.
“From our point of view, what we really want is the substance,” Tan Chorh Chuan said. “Right now it’s just an NUS degree, and I think that may evolve over time, for now we are focused on building the program.”
For part two of this series, a look at how the Yale-NUS liberal arts program will function as a new education model in Singapore, see Wednesday’s News.
Correction: March 29
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bangladesh is in East Asia.