'Ironic' that Yale-NUS now seen as 'paragon' of academic freedom given concerns when it was founded: Chan Chun Sing

He said that MOE is committed to supporting the New College.

Jane Zhang | September 13, 2021, 04:59 PM

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In Parliament on Monday (Sep. 13), Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing spoke about the closure of Yale-NUS and the creation of the New College by the National University of Singapore (NUS), as announced on Aug. 27.

He was responding to questions by several Members of Parliament (MPs) who asked about the the decision-making process, support for affected parties, and the future of the liberal arts.

NUS must continue to evolve

Chan said that from its 10-year partnership with Yale, NUS garnered "valuable insights into interdisciplinary liberal arts education and its defining features, such as the integration of residential living and learning":

"NUS, like all our other universities, cannot remain static. In the face of a changing and, in many ways, more challenging world, NUS will have to continue to evolve."

In order to do so, NUS has "charted a bold roadmap of educational innovations", like the creation of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), followed by the College of Design and Engineering (CDE). The New College is the "a third important step in this roadmap", Chan said.

He noted that many of Singapore's newer institutions were started in partnership with leading universities worldwide, and that as they have progressed and evolved as intended, they sometimes "come to a natural end at the checkpoints designed into the initial partnership agreements".

Chan added that Singapore's universities continue to seek out partnerships, as "we have much more to learn from others":

"But to be an attractive partner for others, we too must find our own unique value propositions. We cannot and should not be a cloned version of others, no matter how successful they may be."

He called Yale a "longstanding friend" of NUS, as well as a "visionary partner" in Yale-NUS, adding that they are open to exploring other collaboration opportunities with Yale in the future, and that he is glad that Yale has agreed to play an advisory role for the New College.

Will bring together best of USP and Yale-NUS

Chan repeated points made both by NUS and its president, Tan Eng Chye, about combining the best features of both USP and Yale-NUS to create the New College, such as a residential component, small-group teaching, a common curriculum, and an overall immersive experience.

He also welcomed a diversity of international student to form a "vibrant student body." Students and faculty from both Yale-NUS and USP have been invited to be part of the New College's planning committee.

Chan said that due to scale, the New College can be more inclusive, affordable and flexible.

"MOE is committed to supporting the New College. We expect that tuition fees and costs per student will be lower than that at YNC, in keeping with the vision for the New College to be a more inclusive, affordable, and accessible model of education."

The New College will also offer a wider choice of majors and minors than Yale-NUS, he said, particularly in STEM disciplines.

Financial reasons were important consideration but not main motivation

Chan spoke about the costs of Yale-NUS, and said that while they were an "important consideration", they were not the main motivation for the change.

He stated that when the initial decision was made to set up Yale-NUS, they knew it would cost more; the cost of education of a Yale-NUS student currently, as well as the tuition fees and government funding, is more than double that of a Humanities or Sciences student in NUS.

However, the government accepted it "because we saw value in having a liberal arts college in our tertiary system".

Chan stated, as President Tan Eng Chye previously wrote in his Straits Times commentary, that Yale-NUS was unable to reach its target of raising over S$300 million, in order to reach an endowment fund size of around S$1 billion.

However, as a response to Tan's commentary by several Yale-NUS alumni stated, a Yale Daily News report revealed that the $300 million goal for fundraising was set for 2030, nearly nine years down the line.

Chan did not mention the 2030 deadline in his response in Parliament, and said that the development of the New College "will give us economies of scale, and reduce costs to some extent".

Future of liberal arts and academic freedom in Singapore

Responding to questions from Workers' Party MP Leon Perera and People's Action Party MP Nadia Samdin about future plans for the liberal arts, Chan said that the New College will keep the "spirit of independent inquiry and inclusivity" fundamental to Yale-NUS and USP.

"NUS is, in fact, building on the foundations of YNC and USP, as well as the lessons gleaned from the collaboration with Yale University. It wants to make the distinctive features of education in YNC and USP more inclusive and more accessible."

Responding to questions about the impact of the decision on academic freedom in Singapore, Chan said that Yale-NUS's policies on academic freedom took reference from NUS's practices relating to academic freedom.

He added that the faculties of arts and social sciences in NUS and other autonomous universities "have had a long history of teaching and research, including on potentially sensitive and difficult topics, long before the establishment of YNC", are "highly-ranked globally", and "attract distinguished scholars".

Chan stated that it would be "grossly unfair" to suggest that the teaching or research of faculty members in NUS and other autonomous universities "is in any way less rigorous, of lower quality, or less free than that of YNC faculty".

Earlier concerns over academic freedom proved unfounded: Chan

Chan also referenced earlier concerns about perceived lack of academic freedom when Yale-NUS was first established:

"They proved unfounded. In fact, few believed then that YNC would live up to its ambition. Even fewer would own it.

It is perhaps ironic and a testimony to NUS and YNC’s efforts all these years, that YNC is now seen as a paragon of academic freedom in Singapore."

In 2019, academic freedom at Yale-NUS was called into question after the cancellation of a one-week course on dissent by local playwright Alfian Sa'at.

However, a report by Yale's Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis on the cancellation found that the decision was "made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the College".

The decision-making process

Chan acknowledged the feelings of sadness, loss, and uncertainty that Yale-NUS students, parents, faculty, and staff may be feeling, and outlined the decision-making process, including the previously reported timeline:

  • Early-July 2021: NUS initiated discussions with Yale. Yale "acknowledged NUS’s vision" to combine Yale-NUS and USP into the New College that would no longer bear Yale's name.
  • July 2021: Yale-NUS leadership was informed of the decision.
  • Early-August 2021: NUS Board of Trustees endorsed the decision.
  • End-August 2021: The Yale-NUS Governing Board endorsed the decision.

He said that both Yale and NUS felt that the responsible thing to do was to announce the merger early, and that it would be "in bad faith" to delay the announcement and continue admitting students or hiring faculty.

Addressing questions on why the decision was made with no consultation of current students and staff, Chan said:

"NUS did not do so because the decision involved discussions between the senior leadership of two universities, and with their respective boards, on sensitive issues of strategy and finance."

Instead, he said that NUS wanted to "give maximum time for the transition to occur and for the stakeholders to be involved in working through the transition issues".

Assurance about degree and impact of merger

Chan tried to reassure students, parents, and alumni who may be concerned about the stature of a Yale-NUS degree due to the closing of the school.

He stated that since NUS and Yale are both "globally renowned universities which are well-recognised by employers":

"I am confident that the YNC degree will continue to be highly valued, and its past and future graduating cohorts will remain in good standing, even beyond 2025."

Chan stated that even beyond 2025, NUS will provide supporting documentation to explain the context of Yale-NUS and what the Yale-NUS degree conveys, as well as provide letters of recommendation or referees to alumni who need them.

Responding to concerns about how the merger will affect current students, faculty, and staff, he assured Yale-NUS students that they will continue to have access to Yale-NUS's full range of majors and minors until 2025.

Chan added that the establishment of the New College will "open new possibilities for students of YNC, USP, and the New College to interact and collectively participate in active and inclusive student life in the next few years".

He repeated NUS's assurance that no faculty or staff will be made redundant by the merger, and that they "have been and remain part of the NUS family".

Top photos via Facebook / Yale-NUS College and MCI. 

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