Yale-NUS closure comes without Yale input, University officials say
Yale administrators and Yale-NUS students and faculty reflect on the institution’s 2025 closure, which was announced on Aug. 26.
Asha Prihar, Contributing Photographer
The National University of Singapore’s one-sided decision to push Yale out of the universities’ joint college surprised Yale administrators, who were subsequently forced to accept the change, according to University officials.
In the days since the Aug. 26 announcement that Yale-NUS college would close in 2025, new details have emerged on the manner and motives behind the National University’s decision to edge Yale out of the project. According to Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis, NUS leadership wanted to open more spots for Singaporean students and allow them to take courses in all of the NUS majors.
Four Yale-NUS professors and administrators said the decision comes against a political backdrop of rising meritocracy and anti-elitist sentiment, which they said could have inflamed tensions over the exclusive program within the broader university.
A representative of NUS President Tan Eng Chye GRD ’89 said that he would not comment for this article. Fiona Soh, director of public affairs at Yale-NUS College and writing on Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong’s behalf, did not respond to the News’ questions about the decision.
“The New College will draw on the best facets of Yale-NUS College and the University Scholars Programme to deliver immersive, interdisciplinary liberal arts education more accessibly, and at greater scale,” Soh wrote in an email to the News.
In order to dissolve the college, NUS leaders seized onto a clause included in the college’s 2011 founding that allowed either party to unilaterally pull out of the venture in 2025. Twelve hours and an ocean away from Yale, NUS will merge Yale-NUS with its existing University Scholars Programme to create the “New College.”
In Singapore, students and professors expressed shock, sadness and fear at the dissolution of Yale-NUS. They noted that the liberal arts model made it a unique educational opportunity and that the campus, which one student described as a “castle,” was also a fortress that provided protection from some government restrictions on free speech. Though Yale professors had raised concerns about academic freedom within the college, Yale-NUS students noted the community they had built and the additional freedoms they experienced — including the formation of a LGBTQ affinity group, which is difficult to do in the broader Singaporean educational system, they said. Students across NUS released a petition with more than 14,100 signatures opposing the opacity of the decision to merge the programs, but to no avail.
“I don’t think we really had an opportunity to keep the college going on its own terms,” said Richard Levin, Yale-NUS co-founder and Governing Board member. “It was stated pretty clearly that NUS was going to exercise its option to withdraw.”
According to Levin, the college’s founders inserted the clause with the implicit understanding that Yale might remove its name and pursue other international projects, but that the college would carry on.
Instead, NUS had been reviewing similarities between Yale-NUS and its existing University Scholars Programme for 18 months and had been pushing for their merger during that time, according to an unofficial transcript of a USP town hall held in the days after the decision and obtained by the News. Twelve months ago, NUS began considering how to ensure a smooth transition, according to the transcript.
A NUS spokesperson disputed the transcript’s timeline, writing to the News on Tuesday morning that the national university’s broader restructuring began in December 2020, but that the idea to close Yale-NUS came later. The spokesperson did not answer a question about when Tan first had the idea to merge the programs.
The decision to close Yale-NUS came from Tan, according to Lewis. It was part of a broader restructuring of Singapore’s educational offerings, one that had been conceived of in 2018. In late June, Tan approached the Singaporean Ministry of Education and the NUS Board of Trustees with his plan to close Yale-NUS, according to a NUS spokesperson. With their approval in hand, he called University President Peter Salovey in the first week of July, the News previously reported. Only afterward was the Yale-NUS leadership informed of the college’s dissolution, The Octant, Yale-NUS’ student-newspaper reported.
“He definitely made the decision that that was going to happen, and I think he probably had gotten the approval of his trustees for that,” Lewis told the News. “It was mostly a surprise.”
Both Levin and Lewis noted that they had become aware of the new vision for NUS more than a year ago, when it created a new college for humanities and sciences. But at the time, the reforms did not seem to include the possibility of ending the Yale-NUS partnership, Levin said.
Salovey and Tan have spoken almost weekly for the past few months, Lewis, who responded on Salovey’s behalf, wrote in an email to the News. Since May, the two presidents had discussed doubling the number of students in the college to make it more financially sustainable, Lewis said. Most recently, they have focused on maintaining the Yale-NUS experience for current students.
When Tan told Salovey that NUS would withdraw from the partnership, he made clear that his decision was made; there was no opportunity for a counteroffer, according to Lewis. Instead, Tan used his calls with Salovey to solicit advice on how to make the merger effective. However, Yale was clear that it wanted to continue with Yale-NUS, Lewis added. Salovey ultimately respected Tan’s decision, Lewis said.
Once Salovey was notified that Yale-NUS would close, a small working group of Lewis and members of the Yale-NUS Governing Board met throughout July to oversee the transition and make plans for Yale-NUS’ final four years. The group had been focusing on the college’s long-term financial stability, but pivoted once Tan decided the college would close.
On Aug. 23 in Singapore, Tan informed the full Governing Board — which approves broad strategic decisions and financial plans — of the merger plan, Lewis said. The board then began arrangements to maintain Yale-NUS for the next four years, Levin said.
Yale has pledged that Yale-NUS faculty and staff will retain their positions after the merger, and that students will receive the same educational experience throughout the coming four years.
Within Singapore, Yale-NUS is widely seen as an elite institution, one Yale-NUS professor who requested anonymity due to fear of NUS retribution said. The tuition is about twice as high as that of some other colleges in Singapore, and Yale-NUS accepts less than seven percent of applicants. Additionally, its campus is the only college apart from the New Haven campus that bears the Yale name, and it is marketed as a “liberal institution.”
Jamus Lim, member of the Singapore’s Workers’ Party who plans to raise questions about the closure in the next sitting of Parliament on Sept. 13, wrote in a Facebook post that the liberal arts college differs from most Asian universities, which focus on science, technology and other professional fields. Many resisted a liberal arts education as “either useless or inherently left-leaning,” he wrote, and called it misplaced criticism. Lim declined to comment until after the Parliament meeting.
“So the bottom line is that I find the loss of Yale-NUS regrettable, not only because it represented a tiny beacon of diversity in local education, but also because we now have one less avenue for informed debate,” Lim wrote on Facebook.
NUS has said that the New College, the result of the Yale-NUS merger with NUS’ University Scholars Programme, will educate more students and will have them further specialize in courses and programs in other parts of NUS, Lewis explained.
Charles Bailyn, Yale professor and inaugural dean of the faculty at Yale-NUS, referenced an NUS statement that the closure was designed in part to open up more slots for Singaporean students and fewer for international ones.
Yale-NUS is made up of about 45 percent international students, while USP and other NUS programs were at about 11 percent. The New College will be about 25 percent international students, according to the unofficial transcript of a USP town hall.
”I think this is a strategic mistake on their part,” Bailyn wrote in an email to the News. “Singapore has gone to great lengths to create a world-class higher education system, and they would greatly benefit — educationally, commercially, and culturally — by leveraging that investment to bring in as many top-notch students from the rest of the world as possible. Yale-NUS has been exemplary in that regard, and appears to have been punished for this success.”
In the wake of the closure announcement, theories flew as to why NUS chose to shut the college instead of adding to it or modifying it to better accomplish its goals. Professors and students noted that in recent years, the college had not raised the funds it had projected to for its endowment.
According to Lewis, the motivation was not financial. Levin seconded this claim, stating: “If people are saying that finances were the issue, they’re simply incorrect.” But while Lewis and Levin said that the motivation was not financial, the school did have a budget deficit and had fallen behind track to hit its fundraising goals for 2030.
Yale-NUS required resources from the Singaporean government, and many of the funds financed the education of foreign talent. According to a previous article reported in the News at the time of Yale-NUS’ conception, the government of Singapore was meant to finance the college for at least its first decade, but administrators also tried to build up an endowment. Officials hoped the endowment would be on par with those of Williams College and Amherst College, which were valued at about $1.5 billion at the time, according to a 2008 Ministry of Education report.
But Yale decided not to tap into its existing donor pool and potentially divert funds away from its U.S.-based programs and campus, the News reported in 2011. While the Singaporean government funded the college’s construction and subsidized most of the costs in its first decade, the college aimed to be funded by one-third government subsidy, one-third tuition and other fees and one-third gifts and endowments by 2030, according to The Octant.
By 2021, the Yale-NUS endowment was valued at $429.8 million, while Williams and Amherst had nearly doubled their cash pools to about $3 billion. Fundraising had been a success in the college’s first few years but has slowed since then, Levin said. In 2014, Yale-NUS received $13 million in gifts. It received $8.44 million the next year. If this average rate held, it would take more than 300 years to reach the endowment target, Yale-NUS professor Shaffique Adam told the News.
Lewis told the News that fundraising was about halfway to its goal and confirmed that a budget deficit existed. Levin said the deficit could be easily closed with more fundraising efforts. To reach the 2030 goal would have required raising “only a small fraction of what Yale raises in a year,” he explained.
“Neither Yale nor NUS had engaged much in the fundraising, leaving it to Yale-NUS leadership to pursue it,” Levin said. “I think that was about to change.”
A “New College” or an extension of the old?
In Singapore, students and faculty questioned whether going forward, the New College’s curriculum would adhere to Yale-NUS’ liberal arts model and whether it would preserve the college’s characteristic facets.
Yale-NUS was well-known for its “common curriculum,” which compared Eastern and Western texts and philosophy, Lewis said. The New College’s curriculum will be a hybrid of USP and Yale-NUS, according to the town hall transcript. Although administrators have not yet clarified where on the continuum the curriculum would fall, Lewis explained that it will more closely resemble an honors college than a liberal arts one.
According to an NUS press release, New College students will study at different schools within the university depending on their specialty. By contrast, Yale-NUS had its own faculty and smaller class sizes, and all students studied in the same school.
The future of faculty at the New School still feels hazy, according to the anonymous professor. He noted that the college had hired 16 tenure-track faculty just over two weeks prior to the revelation that Yale-NUS would close. The press release promised that the New College would honor all contracts. But without concrete evidence in hand — namely, a contract — some faculty feel uncertain, he said.
Soh, speaking on behalf of Yale-NUS’ President, wrote that NUS will honor all existing employment contracts and will transfer faculty to NUS or New College departments as the number of Yale-NUS students declines.
Neil Clarke ’80, an associate professor at Yale-NUS, said that he anticipates many of Yale-NUS’ roughly 100 faculty members will leave throughout the next four years. While some might benefit from being absorbed into NUS, he thinks most feel “that it was their choice to be at a place like Yale-NUS rather than at a place like NUS,” Clarke told the News.
Additionally, some faculty members — such as those in the environmental studies discipline — do not have a parallel department within NUS, the anonymous professor said.
“We have such a weird mix of faculty that have found and built a home here that’s just right for us,” the anonymous professor said. “There’s no obvious home for many of us at NUS and we don’t know what that means.”
“Within the campus itself, we were free”: Yale-NUS community reacts
Students, professors and alumni reflected varying responses, from anger to denial to cautious optimism, Adam told the News. But a common reaction was “wistful and nostalgic,” he added.
“I think Yale-NUS was really the shining light of a liberal education in Asia,” the member of the class of 2021 told the News. “To be honest, I think within the campus itself, we were free.”
For their part, many Yale-NUS students have risen up against the decision to close the college and demanded answers. On the Tuesday morning after the announcement, alumni met with Yale-NUS leaders in a town hall. Parents of Yale-NUS students did the same on Thursday.
Yale-NUS, USP, and NUS students released a petition against the merger and the “top-down” decision making that enabled it. The petition has drawn more than 14,100 signatures at the time of publication.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson ’04, a Yale alumnus who now teaches at Yale-NUS, said that the college’s small size led to a “warm, informal, and close” relationship between students and faculty. The mix of backgrounds and perspectives made it unique, he added.
Limits on academic freedom at Yale-NUS have caused some concern in New Haven. Still, the school’s guidelines shielded students and faculty from persecution based on their sexuality, and offered some stated protection from government retribution. It is not yet clear, however, whether the standard of academic freedom will continue at the New College.
Yale-NUS was the first liberal arts college in Singapore.
Clarification, Sept. 7: Following the publication of the article, a NUS spokesperson — who previously declined to comment for this article — wrote to the News disputing the timeline of the decision to close Yale-NUS. The story has been updated to reflect that comment.
Clarification, Sept. 7: The story has been updated to clarify that a comment about some Yale-NUS faculty members not having a a parallel department within NUS should be attributed to the anonymous professor, not to Clarke.
Correction, Sept. 10: A previous version of this article misspelled Schneider-Mayerson’s name as Schneider-Mayer. The story has been updated.