Photo Courtesy of Yale Daily News.

What Yale-NUS' Closure Means For Liberal Arts Schools in Asia

Imbalances in the financial and political circumstances of Yale-NUS' inception are ultimately what led to its closure. Will that be the case for other jointly established liberal arts institutions?

Oct 10, 2021

The abrupt closure of Yale-NUS, Yale University’s much commemorated venture in the island country of Singapore, has attracted attention and criticism across the globe. On Aug. 27, the National University of Singapore, also referred to as NUS, released a shocking press statement about the phased dissolution of Yale-NUS. The batch of 240 students that was admitted in May 2021 is set to be the ninth and last class, after which Yale will no longer be a part of the project. An official from the NUS administration stated that Yale-NUS will be merged with NUS’s University Scholars Program (USP) to form the “New College'' which will draw on the most appealing attributes of Yale-NUS.
This decision generated a wide range of responses from students, faculty and alumni. While some university leaders have hailed the decision as a step in the right direction, many others have expressed dissatisfaction due to a lack of inclusivity in the decision-making processes. More than 13,000 people have signed an online petition called “Reverse the Mergers” and “#NoMoreTopDown”, initiated by students from Yale-NUS and NUS, calling on NUS to backpedal on the decision.
"The New College will offer students the opportunity to benefit from an immersive, interdisciplinary liberal arts education that very importantly offers greater access to multiple pathways, disciplines and specializations across the NUS ecosystem," said President Tan Eng Chye about the change being part of a larger strategic alignment planned by the university in 2018.
According to the memorandum of understanding signed between the two parties back in 2011, either party had the option to pull out in 2025. The merger is being portrayed as a revolutionary step in order to subdue the negative publicity garnered due to the unilateral nature of the decision. Systemic references have been made to suggest that this merger fosters greater inclusivity, with the purpose of reimagining the trajectory of undergraduate education.
Beneath public statements about the closure lie some clues to the real factors that might have propelled this abrupt decision. Many experts have attributed the closure to a model of financial unsustainability. In 2017, Mr. Pericles Lewis, the founding president of Yale-NUS, declared that the college had "a few years left" to achieve its fundraising targets. Any private institution earns its revenue from two primary sources: endowment from private entities and a minor portion sourced through governmental grants.
It is crucial to analyze the genesis of institutions that rely solely on government funding as a source of income. Comparing this model to that of NYU Abu Dhabi, we find certain glaring similarities. Although financial transaction records between the UAE government and the university are not in the public domain, New York University in Abu Dhabi Corporation has to file IRS Form 990 in order to claim federal tax exemption in accordance with the U.S. tax code. This is a crucial source for analyzing the various transactions undertaken by the NYUAD administration. Perusing the balance sheet, we see that revenue incurred through private entities amounts to roughly $201 million. Another significant document highlighted in the 2007 Provost’s report provides in-depth insight into the UAE government’s substantially high monetary involvement.
As compared to liberal arts institutions in the United States, the endowment that Yale-NUS receives is negligible. According to data released on their website, Yale-NUS reports that, in March 2021, its endowment revenue amounted to $429.8 million. In contrast, top-tier liberal arts colleges like Williams College and Amherst College in Massachusetts with similar student intake had endowments amounting to $2.38 bn and $2.84 bn respectively for the fiscal year 2020. Thus, the difference amounts to approximately 500% for a student body of around 800 students.
A part of the Yale-NUS funding crisis can undoubtedly be attributed to its recent inception. The first graduating class is in their mid-30s and thus, not in a position to pool in massive alumni funding. The economic tenet underlying my argument is that diversification of income sources is quintessential to ensure that neither party of a contract has leverage over the other. Unilateral decisions stem from this leverage being tilted in favour of one party. This tenet was absent in the case of Yale-NUS. NYUAD, however, is making systemic efforts to abide by it. In a statement to WSN, NYUAD spokesperson Kate Chandler said that the university is looking into ways to obtain other forms of revenue.
Another aspect to consider is the closure’s implications for liberal arts education in Asia. Although there is no formalized definition of a liberal arts college, the US News and World Report describes them as schools that emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study. At the advent of the 21st century, liberal arts colleges were a radical experiment. Liberal arts colleges are constructed to have Western accreditation and have historically flourished in democratic societies. Although consistent efforts have been made to integrate strands of indigenous writings, most of the curriculum is Eurocentric. The nationalistic Singaporean government had reservations about this. Intense deliberations about academic freedom being used as a tool for political advocacy were prevalent for quite a while. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, responding to questions in Parliament said, "academic freedom cannot be carte blanche for anyone to misuse an academic institution for political advocacy,” reflecting the government’s attitude towards a liberal arts education.
Two years ago, the issue of academic freedom resurfaced when a course called “Dissent And Resistance In Singapore'' was canceled. The college claimed that the course was not academically rigorous and could have legal repercussions for students. This case may be specific to Yale-NUS due to the nature of the collaboration between Yale and NUS, two institutions supplemented by heavy state involvement. This trichotomy of interests laid the ground for the systemic breakdown of Yale-NUS' utopian vision following the tussle for autonomy between Yale and NUS.
The circumstances under which Yale-NUS announced its abrupt closure were complex and unique to the university. Yale-NUS’s inception as an educational institute instrumentalized to perpetuate state interests and founded on an unstable dual stakeholder model tilted heavily in favor of one party can be viewed as the prime cause of its demise. However, making a generalized assumption about the future of liberal arts institutions in Asia based solely on Yale-NUS’s history is arbitrary and far-fetched.
Aarushi Prasad is a Staff Writer. Email her at
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