Peter Ooi and Melody Madhavan, alumni of Yale-NUS College, consider several proposed mergers in faculties and programmes at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and raise concerns about the lack of stakeholder consultation prior to their announcement.
In many policy areas, decision-makers in Singapore are increasingly cognisant that making decisions the right way is just as important as making the right decisions. Effective long-term planning requires more engagement with stakeholders, not less. For example, on 17 July 2021, the Urban Redevelopment Authority kicked off a year-long public engagement exercise to include Singaporeans’ views in their review of Singapore’s 10-year land use plan.
Recent developments at the National University of Singapore (NUS) suggest that this trend has not yet reached Singapore’s higher education landscape. Over the past year, the university administration has announced the formation of three new interdisciplinary colleges, all without any real prior consultation with stakeholders. These colleges will involve mergers between six faculties and programmes in NUS, collectively affecting more than half of NUS’ student body and more than 2,000 faculty and research staff. The first of these colleges, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHS), was announced on 22 September 2020. The other two,the College of Design and Engineering (CDE) and a college tentatively known as the “New College”, were announced in August 2021. These announcements have drawn a variety of responses, from confusion, to disillusionment, to outrage.
For this essay, we spoke to students, alumni and faculty affected by the three mergers. A common thread emerged from these conversations: the top-down approach has weakened the legitimacy of the new institutions, affecting and overshadowing the potential benefits that could have arisen from these decisions. We argue that it is in NUS’ own interests to adopt a strong concept of stakeholder consultation in its decision-making, and we explore how the specific events surrounding the decisions to establish CHS, CDE and New College demonstrate this.
What’s so great about consultation?
Stakeholder consultation is hardly a new concept in higher education. In 1997, UNESCO issued a recommendation concerning the status of higher-education teaching personnel, stating that faculty governance is essential for “effective decision making” and university autonomy. Universities around the globe commonly have some form of faculty senate where faculty can debate and vote on major decisions involving the university. It is also common for student representatives to sit on faculty senates or other faculty governance bodies, such as at Stanford University or the University of Cambridge, even if they do not have voting rights. If the events surrounding CHS, CDE and New College are any indication, NUS must embark on building similar institutional channels for substantive consultation with all its stakeholders, including faculty and students.
NUS’ decision-making processes currently incorporate a narrow concept of consultation. NUS seems to prefer selectively consulting with small groups of people it deems relevant, as our discussion of the three new colleges will demonstrate below. One can imagine a group of these influential people seated around a table, asking the question, “Will it work?” With this framing, consultation with the wider NUS community is reduced to a post hoc public relations exercise. With CHS, for instance, faculty we spoke with explained that they felt that consultations leading up to the public announcement of CHS were insufficiently substantive.
It is high time for NUS to employ a more robust approach to consultation, taking the views of a broad swathe of its stakeholders into account. Such exercises would centre on faculty, students and other people whose lives and livelihoods are directly affected by the decision at hand. These sessions could pose the question, “Is this what you want? Why or why not?” Faculty and students hold a significant stake in NUS, and deserve to have a substantial voice in its decision-making processes.
There are several reasons why it is in NUS’ interests to adopt this stronger concept of stakeholder consultation. First, stakeholder consultations build legitimacy. The abrupt way in which CHS, CDE and the New College was foisted on faculty and students has left many feeling like they are merely instrumental to these grand projects. Genuine consultation could have solicited buy-in from faculty and students who support interdisciplinary education; it would also have given NUS’ leadership the opportunity to address real concerns from detractors, instead of sweeping them under the carpet. Consultation allows these stakeholders to be part of the decision-making process, and mitigates the feeling that they can only wait for such decisions to be done unto them.
Stakeholder consultation could have avoided several of the pitfalls in the decisions to establish CHS, CDE and the New College. Consulting widely among faculty and students will funnel a wide diversity of views into the decision-making process, allowing NUS leadership to pre-empt difficulties in implementation. As we shall see, the lack of consultation has led to several significant difficulties in the implementation of CHS, which faculty and students now struggle to overcome.
CHS: A clear lack of stakeholder consultation.
“Why didn’t they tell us? Why did we have to find out through the news?”– FASS student on the merger of FASS and FOS
On 22 September 2020, NUS announced to local media that it was proposing the merger of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Science (FOS) to form CHS. A key feature of CHS is its common curriculum, consisting of 13 modules, which all CHS students will have to take. The official press release from NUS framed the CHS proposal as “a work in progress” that had not yet been approved. It also announced that the university was conducting “preliminary consultations” with FASS and FOS faculty members, based on a working draft of the proposal. CHS was officially launched three months later on 8 December 2020. In February 2021, NUS put up job listings to hire non-tenure track lecturers to teach CHS’ new common curriculum, just months before the college accepted its first students in August 2021. The pace of CHS’ launch was nothing short of breathtaking.
The veneer of “preliminary consultations” could not hide the top-down nature of the entire decision process. A March 2021 article in the student magazine The Ridge reasoned that the short interval between the announcement and launch of CHS meant either that NUS had decided to approve the college’s launch irrespective of the outcome of the “preliminary consultations”, or that the consultation process was rushed. Either way, the decision clearly suffered from a “severe lack of consultation” of the student body. Speaking to us on condition of anonymity, an FASS student from the AY19/20 batch recalled that most of her friends found out about CHS from the media. “Everyone was really confused,” she said. “Why was this necessary? Why didn’t they tell us? Why did we have to find out through the news first?”
If the announcement surprised students, it left faculty bewildered. One FASS faculty member recalled that his department had already spent several years refining their GE modules under FASS current curriculum structure. With the rollout of CHS, only three existing GE courses would be carried over to the new common curriculum. How the other existing GE modules—which have served to broaden students’ disciplinary horizons since 2001—fit into the new curriculum remains unclear. The faculty member we spoke to also found it telling that the consultations that they were invited to participate in were conducted only after the CHS proposal was announced to the public. “If you want to create buy-in [among students and faculty],” he said. “Shouldn’t you do these consultations long before the announcement?”
Consequences of the lack of consultation
“Everyone is scrambling. It is a lot more extra work for a very uncertain future, and we are still unclear what all of this is about.”– FASS faculty member on the rushed rollout of CHS
During our interviews, it was clear that the decisions made by NUS leadership left many on the ground confused and worried. To be clear, the faculty members we spoke to were not necessarily against the concept of interdisciplinary learning espoused by CHS. Rather, they were dissatisfied that administrators had not consulted substantively with faculty prior to the launch of CHS. Such consultation would have allowed them to raise concerns and contribute ideas which could have pre-empted several difficulties they now face.
The unrealistic timeline for the launch was one source of concern. Ten of the 13 modules in the CHS common curriculum, including two interdisciplinary modules, will be new offerings under CHS. Few details regarding the design, content and implementation of these courses are available. For example, the CHS website states that the basket of modules under the two interdisciplinary modules “will be announced soon”, without offering further information.
Faculty members knew that developing a new common curriculum from scratch would take several years. Yale-NUS took three years from 2011 to 2013 to develop its common curriculum. FASS and FOS Faculty were effectively given one year to accomplish the same. They have the unenviable task of adapting their current courses to the CHS curriculum structure, on top of their existing workload. A second FASS faculty member we spoke to said that the truncated timeline for CHS is placing immense stress on his department. “Everyone is scrambling,” he said. “It is a lot more extra work for a very uncertain future, and we are still unclear what all of this is about.”
Had NUS provided stronger channels for stakeholder consultation, faculty could have raised their concerns regarding the compressed timeline. Consultations with a wide segment of affected faculty and students would have allowed NUS’ leadership to understand broadly-shared concerns, and to take steps to pre-emptively address the difficulties that have now arisen. Faculty and students could also have contributed suggestions to help smoothen the transition.
Above all, consultations would have helped build the legitimacy of CHS. The faculty we spoke with conveyed a sense that they can only adapt to and execute decisions made for them. But the question of legitimacy is not merely a matter of feelings. Faculty and students form the lifeblood of NUS: a university cannot exist without professors to conduct classes, or students to teach. The implementation of CHS, CDE and New College on the ground falls to them. If faculty and students do not share the vision behind these colleges, they will invariably find it difficult to translate the college’s grand ideas of interdisciplinary learning to practice.
Consultation versus speed
There is an important trade-off between consultation and speed in decision-making. Wide, substantive stakeholder consultations require time to plan and execute. While certain decisions may require the speed that stakeholder consultations cannot afford, we contend that the formation of CHS, CDE and the New College fall outside this category of decisions. With complex and multifaceted projects like these, hasty decisions could result in unintended consequences which prove difficult to remedy.
For example, the new CHS curriculum structure allows students to choose an “integrator” pathway, where students can now graduate with a double major within the 40-module course load of a typical honors student at FASS or FOS. However, to fulfill the graduation requirements, a student who chooses to pursue a double major would have only two unrestricted electives in which to explore academic disciplines unrelated to their major.
Double majors are perceived to carry a certain prestige, and faculty we spoke to believed that it would be a popular choice by students, as a way to differentiate their CVs from among a crowd, especially in the context of a post-COVID, highly competitive workforce. However, if a larger number of CHS students opts to double major, the result would be a large concentration of students enrolled in classes associated with popular majors. This means that smaller, more niche departments, who depend on using electives for student outreach and recruitment, might see their enrollment shrink greatly.
If this scenario comes to pass, any potential remedy will be costly. Imposing a quota on the number of students who can double major, or even cancelling the pathway outright, will have major impacts for students who have already embarked on it. This is precisely the kind of conversation which should have been had before the announcement was made, not while the college is being rolled out.
As a complex project, CHS would have benefited from a slow process of consultation, as opposed to its hasty launch. Furthermore, CHS is presumably here to stay for the long term. Was it really necessary to rush the launch of a college that is supposed to be here indefinitely?
CDE and the New College
When NUS announced its plans to form CDE and the New College on 27 August 2021, it became clear that its playbook had not changed. Most of the affected faculty members and students were given little say in the decisions to merge their respective schools. CDE will be formed from a merger between the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment (SDE). The New College, on the other hand, will be formed from a merger between the University Scholars Programme (USP) and Yale-NUS College (Yale-NUS).
The expected pace of CDE’s launch closely resembles that of CHS. According to NUS’ press release, CDE is expected to be officially launched in November 2021, and the students of both schools will “seamlessly transit” into CDE with effect from 1 January 2022, in the middle of AY2021/2022. The press release also mentions that the task force which “conceptualised” the CDE included six industry leaders, as well as the two deans and eight academics from the Faculty of Engineering and SDE. The Faculty of Engineering alone has more than 1,400 faculty and research staff, according to the faculty’s 2019 annual report.
The announcement has already evoked strong reactions from some members of the NUS architecture community. One NUS architecture alumnus from the class of 2018 criticised the CDE announcement in a series of Instagram posts, arguing that the lack of substantive details in the information NUS has provided so far has done little to reassure students and faculty of “a seamless transit” to CDE. He also raised concerns that the new curriculum did not appear to cover “basic critical knowledge and core fundamental skills that every architecture student should have”.
The backlash to the New College has by far commanded the most media attention of the three colleges. The proposed formation of New College would involve the dissolution of both Yale-NUS and USP, both residential programmes with unique curricula, albeit along different timelines. As with CHS and CDE, faculty and students of USP and Yale-NUS were not consulted in the decision. Even the president of Yale-NUS was given no say in the matter, even though the merger amounted to an effective closure of Yale-NUS.
Town halls held for the Yale-NUS and USP community after the announcement of New College raised more questions than answers. When pressed for details, senior administrators were unable to provide convincing answers about the merger rationale, faculty transition plans, and the New College’s as-yet-undesigned common curriculum. The lack of transparency and the apparent reluctance on the part of NUS administrators to provide straight answers regarding the decision making process has only fuelled further mistrust among students and faculty towards the leadership of NUS.
By the following week, students of Yale-NUS, USP and the faculties affected by CHS and CDE co-authored a petition rejecting the mergers. Using the hashtag #NoMoreTopDown, the students asserted that NUS has “a history of concentrating power over major decisions and its processes to its upper management, with minimal regard for the members of NUS whom it claims to serve”. The petition, which has still not been acknowledged by the NUS administration, has more than 14,000 signatures at the time of writing. Despite the tremendous uncertainties and opposition from the college’s students and faculty, the New College is slated to enroll its inaugural batch of students in August 2022.
The high-handed closure of Yale-NUS has raised eyebrows across the globe. Both Linda Lim, professor emerita at the University of Michigan, and Thongchai Winichakul, Emeritus Professor of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison, have noted that making such a decision without consulting stakeholders like faculty and students is simply not normal in academia. While Lim and Winichakul were referring specifically to the closure of Yale-NUS in the process of forming New College, their sentiments apply equally to the formation of CHS and of CDE. In all three cases, the top-down manner in which these decisions were made has severely weakened the legitimacy of the new colleges, as well as the trust between NUS and all the stakeholders involved.
In a Straits Times opinion piece addressing the fallout over Yale-NUS’ closure, NUS President Tan Eng Chye called on the NUS community, including USP and Yale-NUS, to join the “bold effort to create something new”, referring to the three new interdisciplinary colleges. The irony is hard to miss. Faculty and students were given no say in the creation of these colleges, and faculty in particular had little opportunity to voice real concerns regarding its practical implementation. These stakeholders will have to live with the consequences of a decision foisted on them by decision-makers with no ear to the ground. Asking them now to join hands to contribute to this grand vision, held by senior NUS administrators alone, is an affront to them.
For stakeholders to share in any new project’s vision, they must be invited to contribute before the project is declared reality, not after. If CHS, CDE, the New College and any other future endeavours like them are to succeed, NUS must take concrete steps to build real stakeholder consultation into its decision-making processes. Only then will faculty and students be able to meaningfully contribute to these projects as co-creators, rather than as mere cogs in a large, bureaucratic machine.
The authors would like to thank all the students, alumni and faculty they spoke with for their insights and their time.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that consultations with faculty about CHS took place only after the public announcement. It has since been ascertained that consultation did occur before the announcement. It is the opinion of faculty the authors spoke with that these could be more extensive. We have updated the text to reflect this fact. We apologise for any confusion caused by the earlier misstatement.
In addition, an earlier version of this article stated that faculty and students were given little prior indication that the mergers creating CDE and New College would take place. We have received feedback that a townhall was held. The article has been updated to state that, rather, faculty and students were given little say in the decsion for merger.
Added on 15 September 2021: We received an email from NUS Comms on September 15, clarifying the circumstances surrounding the establishment of CHS and CDE. We reproduce it in full below.
We refer to Academia.sg’s article “First CHS, now CDE and New College: A tale of three top-down decisions”, published on 12 September 2021. We would like to clarify two points:
It is not accurate to say that no consultations were carried out for the formation of the College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) and the College of Design and Engineering (CDE). In fact, both colleges went through extensive consultation with faculty, students, alumni and industry, since June 2020.
The College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS), launched in December 2020, was not a merger between the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Faculty of Science (FoS). Both FASS and FoS will continue to operate as separate faculties. The CHS is an enhanced undergraduate experience that is built upon the deep education and research expertise of two of the largest and most established faculties in Singapore. Students at CHS will have access to the facilities and courses offered in both faculties.
Instead of entering FASS or FOS directly – as is the case was previously – the inaugural cohort in Academic Year 2021/22 was admitted first to CHS. All will study a carefully curated Common Curriculum before going on to select any major offered by FASS or FOS. At the end of the four-year Honours course, the students will graduate with the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Social Sciences or Bachelor of Science degree.
The commentary mentioned “merger” in several instances in relation to CHS, as well as the lack of consultation for the formation of both CHS and CDE. We would appreciate if you could make the necessary factual corrections.
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