Last year, Carmen Denia worked four jobs, planned a wedding, and learned to bake. Ijechi Nazira polished her Spanish and watched TED talks. Regina Hong traveled, volunteered, and discovered “the simple charms of Jane Eyre.” This year, they’re going to found a college.
Many students, Yale professors, non-Yale professors, journalists, and Singaporean activists wish Yale-NUS College (YNC) had never been built. Last April, the Arts and Sciences faculty passed a resolution expressing “our concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore.” Richard Levin, GRD ’74, called the tone of their statement “unbecoming.”
In the ensuing war of words, Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore has been attacked as corrupt, paradoxical, morally bereft, philosophically ridiculous, and poor in taste. Jim Sleeper, DC ’69, a lecturer in the political science department whose Huffington Post articles on YNC have run as long as 13,000 words, points out that at least five colleges have either pulled out of Singapore or refused to open programs there in the past decade, that opposition leaders have been sued into bankruptcy by the ruling party, and that those convicted of minor crimes are often beaten with canes.
These accusations are beyond the scope of this piece, and that debate is public record. What is no longer up for debate, however, is the fact that YNC classes will begin in August. A liberal arts college with Yale’s name, Singaporean ownership, and an international student body will be built from the ground up. What does this reality mean for 150 YNC freshmen? For the professors, tasked with designing and delivering a curriculum unlike anything they’ve ever seen? For us, the students of this college—which we may soon have to call Yale-New Haven?
To found a college, you need three things: students, professors, and a place for them to meet. The first was no problem for YNC. In four admissions cycles, the college accepted fewer than five percent of those who applied, as the competition grew fiercer with each round. Evannia Handoyo ’17 confessed relief that she’d been taken in the first round, back in 2012: “There’s no way I’d be able to get in if I were in this year’s batch!”
These prefrosh have talent, too. As Karen Ho put it, “We’ve got the state swimmer who loves art history, the president of a China Studies club who’s a walking encyclopedia of American politics, and the IT diploma holder who is planning to major in psychology and do a Master’s in guitar performance. Put us all in a room for a couple of hours, and the ideas we come up with are mind-blowing.”
Sound familiar? Scrolling the YNC student blog—whose articles include “The Clash of Civilizations at Yale-NUS,” “Why You Should Give Fanfiction a Second Chance,” and “Overthinking Hugs”—I can’t stop thinking, “They’re just like us!” They dreamily discuss the curriculum, the (three) residential colleges, the classmates they’ve met in person and over a video-chat service called Virtual Skygarden, and the orientation program. Those admitted in 2011 have, essentially, gone through a year of Bulldog Days, including YNC-based parties for Easter, Halloween, and the Lunar New Year. “What I have experienced,” Hong tells me, “makes me wish very fervently that school would start soon.”
This might seem like typical pre-college optimism, but YNC’s first class will face a challenge unlike any in the history of Yale freshmen—at least since 1701. The college has no sports, clubs, a cappella groups, or secret societies. (The last item could be tough to found; YNC’s campus map includes no tombs or out-of-the-way mansions.) The Class of 2017 will have professors and dean’s fellows (current seniors at Yale, soon leaving for Singapore) to help, but in the end, the “traditions” of this new college will depend largely on the interests of its first students. Those interests include, at press time: dance, Pokémon, Bollywood, political activism, and fermentation. The fermentation club’s “kind of a secret,” its hopeful founder tells me, so I won’t say more beyond the fact that she hopes to gift future classes with foods prepared in such a way that they will improve with age.
YNC students hope is that their college will also improve with age. Every student I heard from was thrilled by the chance to create a culture from scratch. Handoyo explained a non-fermented way to make this happen: “I’m excited about experimenting with student government structures and possibly trying out different ones (per semester, maybe) we’ve learned throughout history—even the crazy ones. We’re creating identity, right? So trial and error might just be the way to go.”
Andrew Hui, a professor of Renaissance Literature at the new college, seems as thrilled as his future students at the thought of YNC’s first year. “It’s a start-up,” he tells me. “We’re creating a liberal arts education from the ground up.” To that effect, Hui and close to 40 colleagues have been barnstorming the country for the last year, mostly studying Yale, but also visiting Middlebury, Princeton, Vassar, Pomona, and a host of other colleges whose programs might be worth emulating.
But despite its designers’ intensive research, the YNC curriculum won’t be cloned from any existing system. For two years, students take classes from a unique core program; first-year courses include Comparative Social Institutions, Quantitative Reasoning, and a Literature and Humanities course that breaks with both Far Eastern and Western tradition by including the Ramayana—an epic as key to the Indian canon as the Iliad is to ours—in its syllabus. It’s impossible to cover every topic worth learning in four years, but YNC is taking its best shot, for the sake of its students’ cognition styles as well as their knowledge. “An engineer thinks very differently from a philosopher,” Hui tells me, and the YNC curriculum should give students the tools for both forms of thought.
This combination of depth and breadth sounds almost too good to be true, and Yale professor Christopher Miller, GRD ’83, thinks it’s far from the “quote-unquote ‘utopian plan’” some make it out to be. For one, it lacks departments; students choose from fourteen different majors, but certain key subjects—for example, any foreign language, including the French that is Miller’s specialty—are, for now, absent.
On top of his worry that YNC’s curriculum will breed “intellectual homogenization,” Miller questions Yale policy granting “course release”—the right to teach one fewer course each year—to faculty who consult for Singapore without leaving to teach. This, he tells me several times, is a big deal: to his knowledge, professors have never been given what amounts to paid leave for work on projects unrelated to the University itself. (Despite its branding, and a governing board that shares half its members with Yale, YNC is an independent entity.)
“I’d like to clarify what I meant when I called Yale-NUS a parasite,” Miller tells me, referring to an earlier conversation. “Thinking of my previous metaphor, FrankenYale [an article Miller wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education], I realized Frankenstein’s monster could just go off on its own, but a parasite can’t do that. Instead, Yale-NUS feeds directly off of Yale, the feeding never ends, and there are all kinds of questions on how [the feeding] is going to work. What’s the extent of it? What’s its effect on undergraduates and graduate students?”
The disappointing answer to Miller’s question, and many other questions on YNC’s impact: until the college opens, it’s impossible to tell. Compared to 200 educators leaving each semester (Yale grants faculty one term off in six), the three to four YNC borrows each term seem like a drop in the bucket. Still, another professor with whom I spoke—who asked not to be named, and who follows the partnership closely—says the true problem becomes apparent when individual departments are considered. Since professors can take a YNC term and a semester’s leave back-to-back, some Yale students might be unable to take a key course in their major for an entire year. The professor calls this policy hypocritical: “Faculty who spend a term in Singapore don’t have it counted as their semester’s leave, but requests to take an extra term of leave to teach at other universities are, almost as a rule, rejected,” the professor said. “I can’t teach for a term in Kenya when it isn’t my semester off. Why are we favoring Singapore?”
As I write this, I’ve gotten 10 emails from Jim Sleeper in the last three days. I know more about Singapore’s grim shadow history than I do the official, authoritarian version of the city-state’s rise to glory. Cherian George, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, was denied tenure, on the orders of the ruling party, after publishing a newspaper article barely touching upon government policy. Could the same thing happen at YNC? If Singapore owns the campus—the space where speech happens—might they crack down on any sign of rebellion? Should professors—or those eager prefrosh—be worried?
Hui doesn’t think so. Yale anthropology professor Bernard Bates was also near-certain faculty had little to fear: “Based on my conversations with Singaporeans there and here—especially a series of discussions with my new colleagues from NUS last summer—I am increasingly convinced that the restrictions on teaching and publishing that many initially feared do not represent the current reality in Singapore.” Few academics would sign a contract with a school she fears will restrict her—but YNC faculty confidence, in person and throughout the YNC blog, seems nigh-upon unshakeable.
The future students’ faith in their own free speech is more powerful still. Jared Yeo ‘17, who attended the largest public protest in recent Singaporean history and has worked with opposition candidates on the campaign trail, admits that political parties can’t be founded on campus, but says this won’t restrict his own political involvement: he can still join the youth wing of an existing party. Denia tells me that her college friends in Singapore don’t feel restricted, though she has, infrequently, heard of “negative consequences” for those who oppose the government. However, she accepts the occasional lapse from a city-state still finding its feet: “I’m not saying the Singaporean government is perfect, but I am saying that we’re pretty happy and that it’s such a young country that ‘failures’ are ‘okay’—not in the ‘we should tolerate it’ sense, but in the ‘we can work on it instead of hating on it’ sense.”
It’s true that Singapore’s ruling party rarely has to flex its political muscle, though an opposition professor I spoke with called this a sign of strength, saying that “they can keep up appearances, and still strike with sudden, overwhelming force.” This is a troubling thought, and the continued existence of Penal Code Section 377A, which bans sexual activity between consenting men, is a troubling fact. (Hui compares the law, which has rarely been enforced in the last decade, to a Hartford, CT law banning spousal kissing on Sundays.)
Still, a great many distinguished academics and sharp students have thrown their lot in with YNC. For better or for worse, they plan to teach and to be taught. Whether or not one agrees with Yale’s decision to partner with an authoritarian state—and there is plenty to disagree with—the institution they’ve created is, barring unexpected disaster, here to stay. In a sentiment echoed by her classmates, Denia expressed hope that, despite its contentious creation process, her college could eventually win support from all sides—even its critics.
“They forget,” Denia said, “that beyond all this civil rights rhetoric and debating about policies, they’re missing the point. YNC is all about a bunch of kids and our dreams and a school that, though it might not be built yet, we very much believe in.”
An earlier version of this article stated that Cherion George was a professor at NUS. George is a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, not NUS.
An earlier version of this article was titled “Countdown to Camp Yale-NUS”