The sudden and unexplained decision by the National University of Singapore (NUS) to end its close partnership with Yale University and permanently shut down the autonomous Yale-NUS liberal arts college has angered faculty, alumni and students.
The announcement on Friday 27 August at an online meeting with NUS President Tan Eng Chye, current President of Yale-NUS College Tan Tai Yong and founding president of Yale-NUS Pericles Lewis, stated that the final cohort which has just entered Yale-NUS will in 2025 be the last class to receive the special Yale-NUS degree awarded by NUS.
NUS President Tan Eng Chye said the change was part of a larger ‘strategic alignment’ by the university planned since 2018.
According to the announcement on Friday, Yale-NUS college will be ‘merged’ into a new interdisciplinary NUS honours college as part of the NUS re-organisation provisionally named ‘New College’, which Yale will continue to advise on. But in effect, Yale-NUS will cease to exist, though Yale’s Lewis will continue to serve the New College in an advisory role.
“This smacks of a face-saving formula to show that the parting [between NUS and Yale] is amicable and not the complete split it actually is,” said one faculty member who did not wish to be named, pointing out that Yale would relinquish its governance role.
The decision was clearly hasty and without consultation and debate. Tan Tai Yong told the Yale-NUS Octant student newspaper that the news came to him as a fait accompli, and that he had been “gobsmacked and flabbergasted”.
Yale President Peter Salovey in a statement said: “We would have liked nothing better than to continue its development”, noting that the common curriculum at Yale-NUS drew wide attention “and served as a model for further innovation at NUS as well as other colleges throughout Asia”.
Tan Eng Chye indicated in an interview with University World News last year that he expected his plans to shake up NUS would meet resistance within the university community but that he was determined to push through the reforms, which include two new interdisciplinary colleges within NUS. He did not at that time reveal his plans for Yale-NUS.
A total surprise
“It came as a surprise to everyone, and that is one of the most disturbing things about it [the announcement]. That is not how things are done in academia,” said Linda Lim, co-founder of an informal group of Singaporean academics known as Academia | SG and a Yale alumna, currently professor emerita at the University of Michigan in the United States.
“Faculty were 100% blindsided. Students were blindsided including students who just joined and are freshmen. They just joined thinking it was Yale-NUS and suddenly had the rug pulled from under their feet,” Lim told University World News. “Nobody has given reasons why.”
“Even very senior leaders and professors with long tenures at the college were kept in the dark,” said one faculty member. There were no consultations and NUS did not seek views on how to continue Yale-NUS, even in a different form, she said.
With the new plan (for New College) the model created by Yale-NUS disappears, said Lim. “It tells us that the whole liberal arts model is unsustainable in Singapore, financially, politically, intellectually. It was an experiment, but it is a failed experiment.”
Yale-NUS, with guarantees of academic freedom as part of the agreement from the outset, was seen by many, including faculty, as having a vibrancy and freedom that is not replicated elsewhere in Singaporean universities.
In some people’s eyes “it was too successful as a bubble of academic freedom and that might have been just too much from a Singaporean perspective”, Lim said.
“It is hard not to see the dissolution of Yale-NUS college as a reining in of the institution. After all, it stuck out like a sore thumb, and Singapore was never comfortable with its existence,” said Yale-NUS alumnus Wee Yang Soh.
Yale made it clear that dismantling Yale-NUS College was an NUS decision.
Lewis, now Yale’s vice-president for global strategy, told University World News: “It was an NUS decision in terms of how the [Yale-NUS] college would run for the next four years,” and then be absorbed into a New College.
While both sides repeat that the reason for ending the existence of Yale-NUS as a standalone entity was due to NUS’s own reorganisation, Lewis insisted that describing the decision as “imposed” on Yale by NUS “is maybe the wrong way to put it. It’s a decision that each party has the right to make every roughly every six years of the agreement.”
Yale-NUS was funded by the Singaporean government. The original agreement with Yale signed in 2011 allowed for a review in 2025 when either partner could withdraw from the partnership with a year’s notice.
Lewis acknowledged that the general direction NUS is going was “different from an autonomous college within the larger university”.
“We’ve always understood that, that if it [Yale-NUS] was not going to be autonomous, then it wouldn’t make sense for Yale’s name to be on it, or for Yale to participate in the governance. And that’s a discussion that we were scheduled to have every six years.
“We would have been happy to continue to 2031 or whatever. But rather than wait until 2024, and then tell us, NUS informed us as part of this re-organisation this past summer, which gives us the whole four years before the partnership dissolves.”
Foreign students and endowment funds
Lewis also noted that the new plans for absorbing Yale-NUS into NUS and offering more places for Singaporean students “was a little bit different from our vision where we have almost 50% international [students] and that was an important characteristic for us”. Around 40% of Yale-NUS are foreign students.
Academics have noted that Singapore in recent years has been pulling back on its plans to increase the number of foreign students in the city-state and the funding of scholarships for foreign students out of public funds had increasingly become an issue of debate.
The Singaporean government has always indicated it wanted Yale-NUS to become more self-sustaining via a larger endowment from donations, reducing its dependence on government funding to less than a third of the total.
Lewis hinted that it was not a question of Yale stepping in to fund Yale-NUS. “We discussed a different funding model – ways that we [Yale] could help make it work. We weren’t going to put direct dollars into the thing, but we were interested in finding ways to maybe help with faculty arrangements or whatever other ways to keep the financial structure under control,” he said.
However, he added: “I don’t think ultimately, the financial issues were the main issues.”
Lewis said the NUS plan was to “use the buildings, the endowment, and at least some part of the faculty and staff to run the new college”.
Underpinning its autonomy from both Yale and NUS, Yale-NUS had its own endowment valued in March 2021 at SG$429.8 million (US$319.3 million), much of it from Singaporean donors who supported the idea of the autonomous Yale-NUS College.
“Thankfully, some of the donors who were interested in the Yale-NUS tie-up are able to continue to fund that kind of thing. But I believe that the Yale-NUS leadership will go back to each of the donors and make sure they feel okay with how their gift is going to be used in the new arrangement,” Lewis said.
He maintained there was general support for the New College. But others believe the demise of Yale-NUS could cause some friction with donors.
Donors from the Yale side may be willing for the endowment to be used for exchanges and scholarships to Yale for NUS faculty and students, Lewis indicated. But this is still one of the tricky issues to negotiate.
Student and alumni anger
Wee Yang Soh, a Singaporean who was part of the inaugural class at Yale-NUS in 2013, said in a Facebook post that he had been “Confused. Angry. Disappointed. Heartbroken. Betrayed” at the news which came “right on the heels of the annual fundraising drive where alumni were invited to donate to the future of the institution”.
“As alumni and part of the first batch of the college, we went through a lot of sacrifices to build up the college from scratch, from its practices, its curriculum, student life, everything was painstakingly built up, and for that all to suddenly be taken away from us just felt like a huge blow,” he told University World News.
Soh, now a PhD student at the University of Chicago in the US, described the scrapping of Yale-NUS as a ‘bait and switch’ tactic by NUS towards faculty and the newest students, “especially since it is right after the start of the academic year where new students have just committed to its promises and paid tuition, and so transfers out of the college would be difficult.
“We were taught in a college as an independent, autonomous institution. And suddenly we’ve got a new college instead which is not equivalent,” Soh said. “I knew that Yale-NUS had the potential to become a hub of intellectual inquiry, but I’m not so sure that the ‘New College’ holds the same promise.
“Yale-NUS college is supposed to be autonomous from NUS. It has his own governing structure, its own staff and faculty. It has his own majors. So how is it possible for Yale-NUS College to be strong-armed into this ‘merger’ or closure without notice. It calls into question whether Yale-NUS College had any autonomy all along,” and why its supposedly autonomous governing board did not oppose the decision that angered students, staff and alumni, Soh said.
Soh described it as worrying that Singaporean universities can form “partnerships” with reputable foreign institutions in order to reap foreign expertise and knowledge to establish new educational institutions in Singapore but after a few years dissolve the partnerships and gain full control of the institution.
“If the university which is consistently ranked the best in Asia cannot, in collaboration with an American university with hundreds of years of experience in liberal education, create a real liberal arts college that lasts more than a decade in full-scale operation, what hope, one might reasonably assume, does anyone else have?” said another Yale-NUS student Mitchell Palmer in a blog post.
Jacob Jarabejo, a final-year Yale-NUS student from Singapore, told University World News that “this is an extremely damaging incident. In future, why would any top-tier university collaborate with Singapore in the future, especially as it is so messily and so unprofessionally done, which is surprising given how Singapore prides itself in its professionalism.”
In a statement, Yale said the changes would not result in lost jobs. Tenured Yale-NUS faculty will move to a new NUS department. NUS will honour the contracts of non-tenured faculty, and staff will be transferred to New College or another NUS location.
One Yale-NUS faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from NUS and the Singaporean government, said: “For faculty, this is a catastrophe.” Many like himself relocated halfway across the world, attracted by its orientation.
He believes most Yale-NUS faculty would look to leave. Some with tenure may be able to transfer to NUS, “but none of us trust NUS anymore. NUS has made it clear they don’t want our institution around anymore, so there’s a real question of whether they want any of us around anymore.”
Yale-NUS faculty were used to a certain amount of autonomy over what they teach and how they teach it and liked the vibrancy of the international student body, he explained. “We had a radically different curriculum that was constantly being improved, deeply international and it has been decolonised in response to student input.”
Work on an extensive curriculum review was continuing right up until the morning of the announcement, he said. This week the curriculum working groups of Yale-NUS faculty and Yale faculty were disbanded.
For remaining faculty, he thinks, “the next few years could be really grim, like a very slow funeral, where your colleagues are leaving, student [numbers] or transferring cohorts are getting smaller and smaller until it’s just you turning out the light,” he said.
Final-year student Jarabejo said: “It is heart-warming that immediately after the announcement a lot of professors reached out to students and vouched to maintain the quality of learning. It’s an assurance. But the professors are not uncritical people and some of them feel that the worst is still to come. A greater concern for them [professors] is the lack of detail.”
Others noted that NUS faculty had also not been given any warning that they would have to absorb Yale-NUS faculty. “It is also a major shock to them and a complete unknown,” one professor said.
Robin Zheng, assistant professor of philosophy at Yale-NUS, said in a Facebook post it was heart-breaking. “I feel sickened when I think of this, that we live in a world in which a small group of people in a small amount of time can make decisions that will affect so many people and cost so much of their time, energy, labour, mental health and more.”
She joined Yale-NUS in 2016. She told University World News that particularly the inaugural faculty, many of them recruited from other universities where many had tenure, “were brought in on the promise of this dream of building something new”.
“They were literally told: What would be your ideal liberal arts? You can build that here, we’ll give you the opportunity. And so, when I came on, a lot of the work had already been done. But I totally saw that passion and devotion. And that’s what made it so wonderful to work there, was I had that same devotion and commitment to [this] mission.”
Even if there were economic reasons, “there would have been other options on the table, and we should have had a seat at that table. But, instead, we were just kept in secrecy the entire time,” Zheng said.
Yale’s Lewis told University World News he was not surprised at the strong reaction to the closure of Yale-NUS. “Everybody, including me, who’s been involved, is very attached to the name, and to the community. My friends at Yale-NUS are all just asking how much of that community will continue with the new college and my hope is that there will be a substantial amount of continuity. So, I hope faculty will choose to stay on.”
He nonetheless acknowledged that this was not what the Yale-NUS faculty originally signed up to and noted that “some feel very negative about it”.
A student petition has been launched this week calling for the decision to be reversed. However, as Soh noted, “there has been irrevocable, irreversible damage done to the brand of Yale-NUS College, even if that decision were to be reversed or rescinded. How do we make sure that something like this does not happen again?”
*This article has been modified from an earlier version quoting the Octant newspaper and following a correction by Octant.