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A man walks past the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. ― TODAY file pic
A man walks past the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. ― TODAY file pic

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SINGAPORE, Sept 23 — Ignoring pleas by college administrators to refrain from commenting about the impending Yale-NUS College closure, a group of faculty members has issued a public statement — albeit anonymously — to reject the justifications given for the closure.

They also questioned the school’s ability to ensure a “full Yale-NUS experience” for the remaining cohorts of students, and publicly condemned what they described as a “breach of trust” by decision-makers from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

These decision-makers did not consult the college administrators or faculty members about the move, which they said has a deep impact on the careers of faculty and staff members.

The 19-page document, which was penned by dozens of faculty members and was sent to TODAY, comprises an open letter addressed to the Ministry of Education (MoE), the Yale-NUS governing board as well as the NUS board of trustees.

The statement represents the first time since NUS announced the decision on August 27 that faculty members are speaking out against the decision to merge the NUS’ University Scholars Programme (USP) with Yale-NUS College by 2025.

“Given (the) obvious negative outcomes for Yale-NUS College’s many stakeholders, who collectively put their trust in Yale and NUS and given the many questions that remain unanswered about the rationale, process and timing of the decision, we express our disappointment, sadness and disagreement with the decision to close Yale-NUS College,” the statement read.

Speaking to TODAY, five junior and senior faculty members, who had contributed to the statement and hail from various departments in Yale-NUS, recounted how the faculty stayed silent while students, alumni and parents campaigned for more answers from NUS.

They said that faculty members had been trying to process the changes and seek answers internally, adding that speaking out against their employer could put their own careers at risk.

Most faculty members were Employment Pass holders and did not have tenure, and may face reprisal from their employer for their public comments.

The statement is, therefore, not an official public statement from the full faculty of the college, because some faculty members “preferred a more official process”, while others did not agree with all parts of the full text.

However, faculty members said that since Aug 27, it has been a harrowing experience. This is due to the emotional turmoil of having to support grieving students during regular classes, planning for a hitherto unnamed college in which they have little confidence, and keeping tabs on academia jobs elsewhere.

A full faculty meeting last week, as well as a meeting on Aug 20 between NUS provost Ho Teck Hua and more than 100 Yale-NUS faculty members, yielded few concrete answers, they said.

An associate professor, who joined the college when it was first established eight years ago, said: “I can’t even describe what it has been like, because everybody is going through their own process of assessing what their options are for the future. Should I stay or should I go, and if I go, where?

“But we have to be the grown-ups to support our students and alumni whom we have such close relationships with, and senior colleagues have to support our junior colleagues who need professional advice as well. All of us are emotionally flooded and stunned.”

Another professor said that putting out a statement to register the faculty’s concerns and anxieties was thus a “last-ditch effort” by a group of faculty members to ask NUS to reconsider its decision.

“We’re deeply concerned about our students, their job prospects, their mental health, and what the next 3.5 years will be like for the people at Yale-NUS,” he said.

Statement of concern

Among other issues, the group of faculty members who put out the statement argued that “abruptly severing an exceptionally high-profile tie with one of the most prestigious universities in the world raises questions about the direction and long-term vision for Singaporean higher education”.

They then reiterated past statements from students and alumni of how Yale-NUS had been a thriving college, noting the positive outcomes for its graduates.

But with the decision by NUS’ leadership to close the college without consulting the stakeholders, it had “breached the trust” of its partner institution Yale University, the donors, students, faculty and staff members of the college.

Singapore will thus find it much harder to develop such international partnerships in the future, they added.

“While Yale-NUS faculty have been assured that they will have positions at NUS, these are very different kinds of academic positions. The ‘merger’ constitutes a sudden and massive derailment of faculty’s careers and lives without any warning or advanced notice.” 

With 60 per cent of Yale-NUS faculty without tenure, moving to an NUS department would represent a “huge trajectory shift” from a student-centred small liberal arts college career to a more research-intensive environment in NUS.

Elaborating on how faculty members had been caught by surprise by the move, the five interviewed by TODAY gave examples of how the college had hired more than 15 faculty members in the past year, who came with the expectation that they would have careers at Yale-NUS and were hired to help build the college.

Several noted how the Yale-NUS dean of faculty was among those who were newly brought in and had only recently completed his Covid-19 quarantine period when the news broke.

Many faculty members had also been involved in the comprehensive review of the common curriculum for the college from 2020 to 2021, which involved external review panels from top global universities. This has now been rendered moot since the college will no longer be taking in new students.

“We were even starting to discuss plans for the 10-year anniversary celebration, and also in the process of sending out invites to speakers and donors for an international symposium,” one member of the faculty said.

Another veteran professor said that the execution of the Yale-NUS and USP merger is worse than any corporate mergers that he has experienced or studied.

“This feeling of a breach of trust is pretty widespread among the faculty now, because people have invested a lot of time into building the college, but from what we know so far, there is no intention of keeping anything intact for the new college.”

‘Maximum time’ given to faculty

In response to the faculty’s statement and TODAY’s queries, a representative from the Ministry of Education (MoE) said that NUS and Yale University had agreed to announce the merger soon after plans were finalised in order to allow faculty and staff members the maximum time to work through the details of the transition.

“It would also have been bad faith to delay the announcement and continue to hire new faculty or admit students who would not be able to complete their education in Yale-NUS,” the spokesperson said.

He added that the move to merge USP and Yale-NUS is part of NUS’ education roadmap to expand interdisciplinary learning. The autonomous university had consulted MoE on its proposal in late-June 2021, and MoE is supportive of NUS’ decision.

“MoE and NUS recognise that two key priorities would be to ensure that the education experience for existing Yale-NUS students would not be affected, and to ensure a smooth transition to the new college for faculty and staff.”

These two priorities were “important considerations” for the timing of the announcement, which was discussed with Yale University in July 2021, the spokesperson added.

NUS said that there have been no faculty resignations since the announcement so far, adding that the university has committed to honouring all existing employment contracts for faculty and staff members.

“No one will be made redundant as a result of the announcement. Yale-NUS and USP leadership have been reaching out to faculty members individually to plan for the transition, and will give careful consideration to the views and preferences of each faculty member,” NUS said.

The university has also prioritised engaging both the Yale-NUS and USP communities to address any concerns or questions they may have, and the Yale-NUS leadership is working with Yale-NUS faculty members, both individually and in group settings, to advise and plan their transition to NUS.

“While we note the concerns raised recently by some Yale-NUS faculty on the transition, we are heartened that many faculty have indicated their commitment towards educating Yale-NUS students and are open to future academic opportunities at NUS schools and faculties,” it added.

Unable to guarantee a ‘full’ Yale-NUS experience

One point raised by the few faculty members who spoke to TODAY was that it was impossible to guarantee a “full Yale-NUS experience” that was promised to parents and students still enrolled at the college. This is because no new courses are being planned and faculty members would likely leave when other job opportunities appear elsewhere.

“I’m out, given the chance,” one associate professor said. Another said that he would stay until 2025 “to switch off the lights” to the college, after which he would probably leave.

All of them disagreed with recent statements by NUS and college administrators that there is a “complete strategy” to ensure that Yale-NUS faculty will be up to par, and said that many faculty members are considering their options elsewhere.

“Perhaps, there may be some faculty members who might keep their views to themselves, but I have not heard another colleague say that they are extremely motivated to be part of the new college,” a senior faculty member said.

Two faculty members took issue with a statement by NUS president Tan Eng Chye, who had taken sole responsibility for the merger decision.

Professor Tan had told parents at a town hall meeting last Friday that Yale-NUS programmes will start to “dilute” if he had not decided to accelerate its closure, given the difficulty of maintaining the status quo after “premium funding” from MOE was to end in March 2022.

MoE also told The Straits Times that Yale-NUS students receive around S$70,000 (RM216,706) in subsidies a year, which is thrice that of other students.

In response to that, the senior faculty member pointed out that a Yale-NUS education is still far less costly than comparable institutions of liberal arts or Ivy League colleges abroad.

The faculty’s statement noted that Yale was willing to modify its fundraising approaches to support Yale-NUS, and that the Yale-NUS community could have been given an opportunity to save the college as well.

The comment about how Yale-NUS programmes may start to become diluted was also inappropriate, another faculty member said.

“Honestly, it’s disrespectful for my colleagues who have devoted so much of their life and their time to this curriculum, which students are happy with and have done very well after they graduate,” he said.

“If the NUS leadership thinks that Yale-NUS college was a declining institution, then show us the metrics because as scholars, we work with evidence.” ― TODAY

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