“There is only one Yale-NUS, and now they have lost it”: Students at Yale-NUS dissatisfied with NUS College planning process
Students at Yale-NUS criticize the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) handling of the 2025 merger of Yale-NUS and NUS’ University Scholars’ Programme for its lack of transparency and student involvement.
Yale Daily News
Almost eight months after the announcement of the planned closure of Yale-NUS College in 2025, Yale-NUS students lament the lack of student consultation in the future of Yale-NUS and its successor, NUS College.
On Aug. 26, 2021, the National University of Singapore (NUS) announced that Yale-NUS College, a partnership between Yale and NUS, would merge with NUS’ University Scholars’ Programme (USP), effectively dissolving Yale-NUS as its own institution. Among the outcry from students, faculty and alumni, a common criticism rang through — that NUS had taken a top-down approach, it had not consulted students or faculty and it had essentially sprung the news onto its community, leaving them to mourn a school that many had only just joined. Now, more than half a year since the announcement, students are still dissatisfied with the level of transparency and student involvement in the planning process for the new NUS College. Sam Kouteili Yale-NUS ’23 told the News that there was no transparency, rationale or input for any decisions that have been made so far, and that students seem to be informed as an “afterthought.”
“No I don’t feel satisfied, but I never was going to be fully satisfied the second they announced the school’s closure the way they did,” Kouteili told the News. “They are not acting in our interest anymore, so why include us in any decision making process?”
NUS College, which will open its doors this fall for its first cohort of students, is a four-year honors program for undergraduates enrolled at NUS and will not retain the same level of autonomy as Yale-NUS, which was founded in 2011. The planning process for NUS College involved a planning committee that was supported by seven working groups, each focusing on one of the following areas: admissions, common curriculum, student and residential life, facilities management, communications, faculty appointments and staff appointments. According to an email obtained by the News, around 20 students from both USP and Yale-NUS were represented on the planning committee and working groups.
The email, written by Ho Teck Hua, the provost of NUS and chair of the New College Planning Committee, promised a “collaborative, consultative and open approach that will steer the New College into its future.” This line was echoed by several members of Yale-NUS and the NUS administration, including NUS President Tan Eng Chye and Yale-NUS EVP Joanne Roberts.
“I feel like the administration’s promises were just made to superficially satisfy the backlash after the closure announcement, and they know that they can get away with a mockery of a participatory process because there aren’t any real checks and balances we can effect on them,” said Avery Yale-NUS ’25, whose last name has not been included due to fear of retribution from the Singaporean government. “It just seems like the administration is putting up this masquerade of seeking student input and discarding it to give a bit more legitimacy to whatever they were planning to do in the first place.”
Simon Chesterman, dean-designate of NUS College, told the News that NUS College remains committed to addressing the concerns of current students, but also to ensuring that the incoming students get to play a role in co-creating the college’s culture, which will be distinct from Yale-NUS and the USP. He emphasized that the planning committee’s final recommendation report incorporated many of the student representatives’ suggestions and that students have also participated in at least eight town halls, several focus groups and written submissions at all stages.
Avery, who has attended two out of the seven working group sessions, told the News that student participation was limited, because it relied mostly on the one or two student representatives appointed to each working group. Avery added that ultimately, the recommendations put forth by the working groups are non-binding. The working group sessions that she attended, one on facilities and one on curriculum, she said, were the only two that did wider outreach.
The facilities working group held a series of focus group discussions that students were asked to sign up for. In spite of student participation, Avery said she is “not sure how much they listened.” Many students, she said, advocated strongly for gender-neutral housing and permitting recreational alcohol consumption on campus — the legal drinking age in Singapore is 18 — which were not incorporated into the final decision.
Facilities and housing was a common concern raised among the students the News spoke to. Yale-NUS students had expressed a desire for NUS College students to be integrated into the community by housing them across different residential colleges, according to one current Yale-NUS student who was granted anonymity by the News for fear of retribution. In January, however, NUS announced its decision to house the new cohort of NUS College students entirely in Cinnamon College, the dormitories used to house current USP students.
“It came as a surprise for most students in [Yale-NUS] because I know from friends who have attended other sessions that the option of housing the students in that single building was not discussed,” the student told the News. “This decision was not open, it was not consultative and it was not collaborative.”
She noted that Yale-NUS students do not know when or if NUS College students will begin living in Yale-NUS buildings together with the existing Yale-NUS students, which could mean a sense of a shrinking community for Yale-NUS classes of 2024 and 2025.
Avery, who covered the news of NUS College’s housing plans for The Octant, Yale-NUS’ student newspaper, also pointed out that she was likely one of the first students to learn of these plans through a webinar for prospective applicants.
“I guess it just shows how little they care about [Yale-NUS] input in what is purportedly a vehicle for our legacy,” she told the News.
The curriculum working group organized a town hall that Avery estimates 50 students attended. They presented a slideshow and invited attendees to give feedback, although, Avery said, not much changed from that presentation to the curriculum that the News reported on in February.
Students also expressed concerns about how the working groups were being run. The anonymous student told the News that the first working group session, which was held online, barely acknowledged students’ concerns and questions. She attributed this partially to the fact that the online sessions made it easier for working group members to ignore students’ comments and questions.
Ryan Yeo Yale-NUS ’24 told the News that much of the work to consult other Yale-NUS students was being done by the students in the working groups. At the facilities working group session, he said, he could tell that the only student in the working group was often on the students’ side, but found himself without much agency within the group.
“We would be giving feedback, like ‘can we ask for this?’ or ‘why do you recommend this?’ and at times he couldn’t really give answers because, you know, he was just a student, he was just one member of the working group, so all the answers were like, ‘okay, I’ll bring this up’ or ‘actually, I brought this up, but they were shut down,’” Yeo said. “I guess they were a platform for us to give feedback, but we had no idea whether the feedback was actually listened to. We have no idea what has happened to the feedback that we gave.”
A poll was sent out after decisions were announced for people to give feedback, but Yeo said he felt it was fruitless because he did not know what they would concretely do with the feedback.
A survey published in The Octant on Dec. 5, 2021 showed that less than five percent of Yale-NUS and USP students were satisfied with the NUS College planning process. Yeo, the managing editor of The Octant and author of the article, told the News that the group of students that conducted the poll sent a report to the planning committee with the survey results, but only one person responded and that person was an administrator at Yale-NUS..
“They promised to involve us, but I don’t feel involved,” Yeo said.
The same group that Yeo is part of recently held a community conversation event in one of the courtyards at Yale-NUS, inviting students to come down, talk about Yale-NUS and write their feelings on several blackboards that had been set up. The students were asked to respond to questions about what the Yale-NUS community meant to them and how they felt about the announcements and the closure of Yale-NUS. Yeo told the News that a few members of the Yale-NUS administration also attended.
“I felt like there wasn’t really a lot of space to talk about NUS college together as a community,” Yeo said. “There was a lot more anger at the start. Now, it feels more muted … because it’s just bad news after bad news, and every time we try and do something, they show that they don’t listen to us … But people are still feeling things — when we set up the board, there were a lot of people who wrote that they were still angry, still disappointed.”
The group was initially formed to push for a reversal of the decision to close Yale-NUS, Yeo said, but has since evolved to focusing on how the community can heal and ensure that the Yale-NUS experience stays alive.
Yeo emphasized that several students were frustrated with the way the closure of Yale-NUS had been framed as a merger.
“Ever since the top-down decision was made — completely disregarding students’ and stakeholders’ concerns and opinions regarding the merger — the administration has been repeating the same empty promises of holding an “open, collaborative, consultative” approach,” the anonymous student told the News. “Since the very beginning, the process has been closed off and a privilege only to those higher up, while the people affected by this had no idea and only came to know about an already made-up decision in August 2021.”
Students believed, Yeo said, that a merger would entail taking parts of Yale-NUS and parts of USP and integrating them together.
Instead, he said, at some point, NUS changed its narrative, and is now treating NUS College as a new institution. Chesterman called the school a “collaboration, not integration” in an interview with The Octant.
NUS College students are not part of Yale-NUS, pay different fees and are subject to different rules and procedures, Chesterman told the News. For the next three years, Yale-NUS will continue to run its own programs. Chesterman therefore felt that the idea of a “merger” is not the most fitting.
“Alas, there is only one Yale-NUS, and now they have lost it,” the anonymous student told the News. “There is no more liberal arts education in Asia, and it is a real shame.”
Yale-NUS is the first and currently the only liberal arts institution established in Singapore.
Correction, March 9: A previous version of this article stated that the sole survey respondent was a Yale-NUS student; it was actually a Yale-NUS administrator.