Yale Daily News

Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore is coming to an end, taking with it the island country’s only liberal arts program. Half a world away, Yale professors are looking back on their stays in Singapore with a mixture of sorrow and fondness.

With the announcement of Yale-NUS’ disaffiliation from Yale and the subsequent decision that the replacement, tentatively named NUS College, will not retain its liberal arts core curriculum or requirement, it is likely that the school’s tradition of hosting various United States-based Yale faculty will eventually come to a close.

“It was the most interesting thing I have ever done or will ever do,” said astronomy professor Charles Bailyn, who served as the inaugural dean of faculty at Yale-NUS. “I made a wider range of friends and had more interesting and surprising conversations in three years at Yale-NUS than I have in thirty years at Yale.”

The News spoke to six professors who have either taught as visiting faculty or gave lectures at Yale-NUS since its establishment in 2011. All said that they were initially surprised about the partnership’s dissolution, and several praised the school’s strong grounding in the liberal arts. Many said they would like to return as visitors before 2025, when Yale-NUS will officially merge with the University Scholars’ Programme at the National University of Singapore, or NUS.

Partnership with Yale

A regular flow between New Haven and Singapore was part of the partnership’s founding vision, with visiting professors playing a particularly crucial role during the school’s early years as Yale-NUS grew its own faculty ranks. 

Throughout the pandemic, Singapore’s strict entry quarantine laws made visiting near impossible. Philip Gorski, chair of sociology and director of the New Haven-based Yale-NUS office, said that arrangements are being made for faculty visits to resume next fall. Three Yale-NUS faculty are currently taking sabbaticals studying at Yale, he added. 

“One thing we are really committed to is, until 2025, keeping the ‘Yale’ in the Yale-NUS experience, and part of that is keeping travel open in both directions,” Gorski said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to keep the partnership vital.”

Professors said students at Yale-NUS were as committed to the liberal arts education, if not more, than Yale students. Gorski described his students as “voracious” readers. Tina Lu, head of Pauli Murray College and professor of East Asian languages and literature who visited Singapore in 2015, said her students were “full of a pioneer spirit”, noting that many of them had chosen the fledgling school over top universities across Asia. 

A sense of community

“Yale-NUS is a much tighter community than Yale, among both students and faculty/staff,” Bailyn wrote in an email. “I think this stems both from its relatively small size and because it is somewhat embattled within the society — there’s a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ even when people disagree.”

Yale-NUS students, many of whom come from across Singapore as well as other Asian countries, arrive with a different collective knowledge base than their American counterparts, several professors said. Gorski, who taught the sociology of religion, noted that students were more familiar with the intricacies of Buddhism and Islam than American Yale students are, for example. 

Many visiting professors teach courses within the College’s core curriculum, though some also create adapted versions of their offerings at Yale. Lu, for example, taught an undergraduate version of her graduate-level seminar on Chinese novels. 

Life in Singapore

For several professors, Singapore’s cosmopolitan and multi-racial culture were big draws. Yale-NUS arranges for visiting faculty to live in apartments in Kent Vale, a de facto expat enclave situated right next to campus at the heart of Singapore’s Clementi district. Most sights are within walking distance, and the island’s sprawling mass transit system makes travelling around the city relatively simple. Singapore is also particularly suitable for short-term faculty visits, several noted, because English is universally spoken. 

Faculty sometimes visit alone, though the school accommodates spouses and children as well. Bailyn moved to Singapore for three years with his family when the college officially opened in 2013.

When Lu headed to Singapore to teach a semester-long course in Chinese literature, she brought along her husband and five children. Lu remembers her family’s time with fondness, noting that the experience afforded her kids a special sense of independence. 

“It was great to travel, go abroad because [my children] got to see their parents jump on the wrong bus, be the fumbling incompetents they are, getting used to a new country,” Lu said. “Being a stranger even if for just a few months is a great experience for grown-ups and kids.”

Singaporean cuisine was also a “high point” for Lu, who recalled lining up early in the morning at food stalls for fish congee and laksa. “It’s almost like you can’t find bad food,” she said.

Short-term faculty visits

Family life and administrative appointments in New Haven can make it difficult for interested faculty to commit to semester-long visits in Singapore. Some, however, make the nearly twenty-hour journey for just a few weeks, often right before the start of Yale’s fall semester. During that time they can conduct short-term research in collaboration with Yale-NUS faculty, or give lectures or college teas similar to those held in New Haven. 

Shawkat Toorawa, chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department who grew up in Singapore, jumped at the first chance he got to visit his home country after coming to Yale in 2017. His two-week mini-course about medieval Baghdad, he said, was “fabulous.” Though taking his course amounted to an intensive class added on top of regular semesterly coursework, enrollment was surprisingly high, he said. Students seemed “hungry” for knowledge to a degree that he felt wouldn’t have been cultivated in other environments. 

Scott Holley, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, was invited by Yale-NUS in March 2019 to hold a lecture and attend a tea. Holley visited both Yale-NUS and NUS, where he visited a lab specializing in a new microscopy technique.

The future of the partnership

All six faculty said that they were disappointed with the dissolution of the Yale-NUS partnership. Several added that they were surprised by the announcement; Gorski recalled that by many metrics, the partnership was developing quite successfully with a growing group of quality faculty. He lamented that the partnership’s conclusion would make professor exchange between Yale and NUS more complicated and also expressed sadness at NUS’ decision to ultimately move away from a liberal arts education.

Several professors, including Toorawa, noted that they would try and visit again before the school’s closure in 2025, though those with administrative posts like Lu may find it more difficult to leave New Haven for extended periods of time. 

Benefits of the exchange could have gone both ways, Gorski added. Students and faculty conceived of philosophical and literary canon differently than their American counterparts, adding more Asian and global influences to typical syllabi of Shakespeare. 

“Had the college stayed open, it might have begun to have an effect on Yale,” Gorski said. “They were re-thinking the canons, the lines between various disciplines that would accommodate a truly global community and perspective.”

Elihu Rubin, an associate professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, echoed Gorski’s sentiments. Rubin taught a week-long “short course” on American Architecture and Urbanism at Yale-NUS and said he was “saddened” at the closure of Yale-NUS, specifically because it cut short the growing partnership between Yale and Yale-NUS’ Urban Studies programs.

Bailyn concurred, noting that the partnership’s dissolution may eliminate opportunities for future Yale-NUS students.

“I think it is very sad that future generations of students and faculty will not have the opportunities we had over this past decade to experience what I think was a remarkable institution,” Bailyn said.

As of this month, there have been nearly 50 visiting faculty members from Yale to Yale-NUS, according to the Yale-NUS website.

Miranda Jeyaretnam is the beat reporter covering the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs and developments at the National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS for the YDN's University desk. She was formerly the opinion editor for the Yale Daily News under the YDN Board of 2022 and wrote as a staff columnist for her opinion column 'Crossing the Aisle' in Spring 2020. From Singapore, she is a sophomore in Pierson College, majoring in English.
Isaac Yu writes about Yale's faculty and academics. He lays out the front page of the print edition, edits the News' Instagram and previously covered transportation and urban planning in New Haven. Hailing from Garland, Texas, he is a Berkeley College sophomore majoring in American Studies.