Worlds Apart

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Petitions. Denunciations. Angry op-eds.

When Yale-NUS College was first announced, it was met with controversy and skepticism in the Western Hemisphere. In Singapore, on the other hand, the college’s inaugural ceremony on August 27, 2013 was marked by jubilant festivities. Some 500 faculty members and supporters crowded a high, gleaming stage. Yale University and the National University of Singapore each presented the new college with a set of fifty books, authored by alumni of the respective institutions. And incoming President Pericles Lewis — formerly Yale’s fresh-faced professor of comparative literature, famed among students for his dapper suits — marched out in red and white academic regalia, evoking Singapore’s national flag.

Smiling down at the audience, Lewis proclaimed, “Now all of us here are embarked on our own odyssey — our own voyage of discovery into uncharted waters, dedicating ourselves as a crew to work together in building a new community of learning here in Singapore.”

Three months into this odyssey, the Class of 2017 has experienced the whirlwind of orientation and are nearing the completion of their first semester. After firmly planting their feet in Singaporean soil and their heads in the “great books,” the real work is beginning. Administrators and donors can create the space for learning, but it is up to the students to build their university from the ground up.

The unique premise of the college, a collaboration between Yale and the National University of Singapore, practically guarantees that students have to create their own model. They have no peer institutions to consult, no traditions to fall back on, and no guide to crafting the liberal arts in Asia. As one student told The Politic, “It’s definitely a one-in-a-million opportunity to be part of a culture that creates rather than adopts.”

In Singapore, as in most of Asia, liberal arts institutions are practically nonexistent. Singaporean independence only came fifty years ago, and since then Singapore’s GDP per capita has increased more than a hundredfold and outstripped that of the United States. Like the other “Asian Tiger” nations, Singapore has stimulated this growth through robust investments in education for the sciences, engineering, medicine, and law. As a result, the National University of Singapore is consistently ranked among the best research universities in Asia. An unintended side-effect, however, is that the humanities are often cast aside in favor of STEM disciplines. In this sort of climate, it is no surprise that Singaporean officials looked West when designing their liberal arts institution.

According to Lewis, Yale-NUS represents a change in thinking about higher education in the region. “It’s been championed by a number of Singaporean administrators. They understand that as the economy gets more complex, the knowledge economy expands,” he said. “We want our graduates to see themselves as citizens in the world. It is one way to make a difference in Asian higher education.”

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Protesters at Speaker's Corner, the only space in Singapore where demonstrations can be held without a permit.

Protesters at Speaker’s Corner, the only space in Singapore where demonstrations can be held without a permit.

In early November, The Politic surveyed 78 of the 157 students in Yale-NUS’ inaugural class. Some 62 percent of respondents believe that the liberal arts are valued in Singapore, giving their school a regional monopoly on this growing demand. Pek Shibao, a Singaporean sophomore at Yale who worked at Yale-NUS in the summer of 2012, told to The Politic, “This is the first outlet in Singapore where students can learn in a liberal arts style. Students are taking a risk going there and they know it and they love it.”

An emphasis on the literature and history is a huge draw to many students in Asia, and several freshmen interviewed cited it as a major factor in their decision to attend Yale-NUS over other elite institutions. In fact, the academic structure also deviates quite significantly from Yale. Yale-NUS, with just 157 students, is more akin to a small liberal arts college, and it firmly adheres to a Common Core Curriculum. Imagine a school where Yale’s Directed Studies — an intensive program covering great thinkers of the West — incorporates Eastern thinkers like Confucius and works like the Indian Ramayana, and every student takes it.

“The Common Curriculum at Yale-NUS is unlike any other undergraduate course in the world,” Yale-NUS freshman Graham Link told The Politic. “It is at once a bridge across all members of the college community, as well as a sweeping primer of ourselves.” Fellow student Carmen Denia cited “the East-meets-West aspect of being in a liberal arts college in Asia,” and affirmed that the last half-semester made good on this promise.

Students are also eager to create a new model of higher education. Andy Chen, a student and native of New Zealand, blogged about this enthusiasm in the entrepreneurial language shared by so many of his classmates: “Yale-NUS is like a start-up in education. There’s the chance it could crash and burn, there’s the chance it could create a new model for higher education, there’s the chance it might just become one-in-many liberal arts universities, but you know that regardless of the final outcome, helping Yale-NUS to grow and define itself will be an exciting and rewarding experience.”

“There are no entrenched department interests — indeed, there are no departments. There are no courses or curricular tracks honed to a fine edge by years of individual or collective effort that might be endangered by a new approach. And there are, as of yet, no alumni,” a report by the Yale-NUS Inaugural Curriculum Committee explained. “Thus, a new institution like Yale-NUS has a unique opportunity to ask which of the various existing models of general education might be the most effective, and whether new models that do not exist at all in long-standing institutions might do even better. The question of ‘how do we get there from here’ simply does not arise; the only question is, ‘where do we want to start?’”

Designing a cross-cultural liberal arts curriculum is no mean feat. Reports quickly streamed in of students pulling frantic all-nighters, and enthusiastic professors were forced to pare down their syllabi accordingly. The same newness that allowed them to assign a crushing amount of work also made them nimble enough to make mid-semester adjustments without a hitch.

In spite of the overzealous professors, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We were all excited, everyone was excited — in fact, lots of people left the military to intern at Yale-NUS,” Shibao said. Denia discussed student life in terms not unfamiliar to students at Yale: “People are also very excited about teaching each other and being taught in turn. My own peers have been setting up a cappella workshops, dance classes, basketball games, Rector’s Teas, outings, drawing lessons, movie screenings, science tutorials, and charity projects while also taking part in the things I’ve been setting up with my circle of friends. It’s a very exciting place to be right now!” Since the beginning of the semester students have founded more than thirty organizations.

One survey respondent wrote on The Politic’s anonymous survey, “THIS PLACE IS AMAZING.” Out of 78 respondents, in fact, 36 chose to write a paragraph in the optional “What else would you like us to know?” text box. Yale students, who frequently receive and ignore online polls, will surely realize this is extraordinary in and of itself. What’s more, in the responses from Yale-NUS students, there’s a serious, unironic discourse of changing the world and transforming higher education; the students are evidently excited to discuss their school.

On this side of the Pacific, however, Yale-NUS is scarcely discussed by most Yale undergraduates. Aside from the occasional op-ed and University-led information session, the topic is rarely broached. So why, despite the efforts of Yale-NUS’s Class of 2017 to define their fledgling college, the heavy silence from New Haven?

Undoubtedly, Yale College has been insulated from Yale-NUS from the start. Borne out of a personal collaboration between Presidents Richard Levin of Yale and Tan Chorh Chuan of NUS, the new institution was under the purview of the larger University. The project’s most salient moment came in the midst of criticism from Yale College faculty last spring, when the professors voted on a resolution drafted by Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Mayer Professor of Political Science. The faculty commented on Singapore’s history of human rights abuses and political repression, and Benhabib brought her complaints about the lack of transparent dialogue and “naïve missionary sentiment” of the project to the Yale Daily News.

Even then, Yale-NUS was already a fait-accompli.

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On October 14, 2013, President Lewis and his Dean of Students Kyle Farley, who were in New Haven for Salovey’s inauguration, held an open forum to update Yale College on Yale-NUS’s first semester. Fewer than a dozen students attended.

yale-nus graphs

Many students at Yale-NUS, however, insist that the connection is alive and well. Administrators tend to define the relationship in terms of collaboration and partnership. “Yale-NUS draws on the resources and traditions of two great universities,” states official literature. Some of the college’s students fall back on familial metaphors to cut through the stuffy verbiage of their founding documents.

“I like to visualize Yale as an older sibling who I know has got our back as we step out and try something challenging and new,” said Denia. Her classmate Graham Link framed the situation somewhat differently: “Yale is, put most simply, a parent, and has imparted us with many of its most basic lessons. But we are not Yale. And as with any fledgling youth, Yale-NUS is working feverishly to carve out a niche of its own.”

This sentiment is far from universal on the Singaporean campus. When asked, “Do you feel a strong connection to Yale?” students were evenly split, with 49 percent replying affirmatively and 51 percent negatively. Forty-nine percent of students said they feel equally close to Yale and NUS, whereas 18 percent indicated they felt closer to Yale and 33 percent indicated NUS.

The Yale-NUS Class of 2017 did spend several weeks over the summer living in Berkeley College and experiencing New Haven. Twenty-one Yale professors currently teach at NUS as “Visiting Faculty.” And Yale-NUS students have access to more than three dozen term or summer programs around the globe exclusive to Yale.

But according to one respondent in the latter group, “Yale-NUS is not an independent school; it is a residential college of NUS that is thus closer to NUS than it is to Yale. People willing to study here should understand that Yale-NUS only has a minimal relationship with Yale, and thus they should only want to study here if they are interested in learning at a liberal arts institution in Asia and not because they want to be part of a school affiliated with Yale. Yale-NUS is an extraordinary opportunity, but it doesn’t share any fundamental similarities with Yale beyond the name.”

Yet whether as a sibling, a parent, or simply a name, Yale inevitably looms large in the conversations taking place in Singapore. And buried beneath the glossy promotional material, reservations persist about the connection with New Haven. Some critics question the compatibility of a liberal arts education with a country whose track record on human rights and political repression is shaky. Others are uncomfortable with the premise of “Westernizing” Asian education and often raise Singapore’s long imperial history. But of the 78 Yale-NUS students surveyed, all 78 indicated that they thought higher education in East Asia would benefit from adopting some practices of Western liberal arts institutions.

At the October open forum, Lewis said that academic freedom has never been a large problem at NUS and other universities with programs in Singapore. But many Yalies put their liberal arts educations into practice through political activism and community organizing, options that simply do not exist in Singapore like they do in the U.S. Is it hypocritical, Yalies wonder, to have Yale-NUS students read of Socrates’ principled defiance of the state in Plato’s Apology while forbidding them from taking the same stand outside the classroom?

Lewis insisted to The Politic that the situation has been considered. “A student might be arrested during a political protest,” he said. “We’ve made it very clear what the laws are and the special protections our students have, so we’re well-prepared to deal with a crisis if it ever arises.”

yale-nus cartoonOn the ground, the Yale-NUS Class of 2017 views these criticisms with disdain. 50 percent of survey respondents declared their intention to participate in political activism as students, and an overwhelming 96 percent said that they would feel comfortable expressing their political opinions outside the classroom. 49 percent indicated that they have already or intend to engage in political activism. Four out of five students would also tell you that the criticism is entirely unjustified. “[Critics] would benefit from actually coming over here and seeing what it’s like before continuing to espouse their uninformed views,” said one student. Another would like to “cordially invite any Yale faculty members with doubts on their mind to visit Singapore once and allow us to answer any of their questions in person.”

One respondent told The Politic, “The only problem I have with the whole Yale controversy — aside from a clear lack of understanding of Singapore’s culture — is that I feel pressured to engage in political activism just for the sake of proving it wrong.”

Of the 78 students surveyed, in fact, not a single one believed Yale-NUS would reflect poorly on Yale’s international reputation. “It feels unfair and unjustified to be criticized by people who have never visited our school or spoken to any of the students here,” one respondent elaborated. “I thought that Yale fostered an open-minded community. During our summer at Yale everyone was so nice, positive, and took really great care of us — it was one of the best summers I have ever had. Which makes it even more sad to think that some of the students, who attend that same school where I had those fantastic experiences, have written so many unjust and, frankly, nasty comments and/or articles about us. I am quite surprised at the hostility shown by Yale students.” More than one student informed The Politic that, regardless of country or culture, “haters gonna hate.”

Ultimately, the best hopes for this ambitious experiment in education ultimately lie with its people, the intrepid students and faculty who have gathered at Yale-NUS from around the world. These thinkers and doers — chosen from among the world’s best instructors and some 10,000 student applicants — have dared to be part of something new in the face of doubts and uncertainty, acerbic op-eds and sky-high expectations.

It is up to them to steer their “community of learning” towards what could either be an embarrassing footnote in the history of globalization or a celebration of Yale’s commitment to education across the world. The scores of students reached by The Politic, at least, are determined to choose the latter.

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