After Yale-NUS closure, liberal arts in Asia will benefit from peer support

A new consortium will embody the spread of liberal arts beyond the West, say Bryan Penprase and Thomas Schneider 

September 23, 2021
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The closure of Yale-NUS College is a serious loss for liberal arts within Asia, even raising questions about their very survival in the continent.

The Singaporean institution is one of the continent’s most prestigious protagonists of the liberal arts model, providing a level of excellence, academic freedom, creativity and energy that will be hard to replace.

But its establishment in 2011 was only one part of a liberal arts wave that has swept across Asia since the turn of the millennium. This has resulted in the creation of stand-alone institutions, such as India’s Ashoka University and Vietnam’s Fulbright University, and also partnerships between Asian and Western institutions, such as NYU Shanghai, Duke Kunshan University, and, of course, Yale-NUS. Many new liberal arts programmes have also been built within larger universities, such as Yonsei University’s Underwood International College (South Korea), Waseda University Liberal Arts (Japan) and iCLA at Yamanashi Gakuin University (also Japan).

Acceptance of the liberal arts model among Asian parents and prospective students has been driven by data showing how effective it is at preparing students for careers in business, science and other fields. In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Victor Ferrall notes that 12 of the 53 Nobel prizewinners between 1999 and 2008 who received their undergraduate education at a US college or university received it at a liberal arts college. This is all the more remarkable given that less than 2 per cent of US undergraduates study at a liberal arts college.

Such institutions’ ability to punch above their weight is underlined by a 2016 article in Nature, which noted that the top 10 institutions for producing Nobel Prizes per capita include two US liberal arts colleges, Swarthmore College and Amherst College. And National Science Foundation figures indicate that liberal arts colleges accounted for 27 of the top 50 sources of science and engineering doctorates per capita between 2002 and 2011.

The National University of Singapore’s own interest in liberal arts dates back to 2001, when the elite, multidisciplinary University Scholars Programme (USP) was established. And the institution discussed establishing a new liberal arts programme with California’s Claremont Colleges in 2007, before approaching Yale University a few years later.

The closure of Yale-NUS is officially described as a “merger” with the USP. However, it is actually the wilful destruction of two vital and vibrant academic cultures to create an NUS-controlled “New College of Humanities and Sciences”. The New College should be thought of more as an “honours college” than an autonomous liberal arts institution, and it is doubtful that it will have the same level of success as either Yale-NUS or NUS USP. These programmes built their reputations for excellence via a decade of planning and refinement; discontinuing them points to a change in direction, which will require programmes to be built anew. This is immensely wasteful, squandering the thoughtful and careful efforts of scholars from Yale, NUS and Yale-NUS.

These scholars deserve much better. They publish in leading journals and produce numerous books, maintaining a high level of research productivity while teaching at an extremely high level.

The closure seems also to weaken higher education in Singapore strategically. After all, employers praise Yale-NUS graduates for what one called their “strong writing and problem-solving skills as well as the ability to take initiative”. Five graduating classes have included two Fulbright scholars, two Yengching scholars, two Schwarzman scholars, a Rhodes scholar, and an Ertegun scholar. Numerous start-up companies have also been set up by Yale-NUS graduates, demonstrating the power of liberal arts to catalyse entrepreneurship.

Critics have claimed that the closure of Yale-NUS illustrates how an authoritarian government’s very limited tolerance of academic freedom and student activism can create tensions with liberal arts approaches to higher education. This prompts the fear that the move may be threaten other excellent liberal arts programmes in Asia, where such governments abound.

By contrast, NUS president Tan Eng Chye attributed the closure to cost, while education minister Chan Chun Sing depicted it as an attempt to mainstream “flexible pathways and more interdisciplinary learning”. Yet even if this is the whole story, we do think that liberal arts programmes in the region could benefit from some peer support. That is why we have developed a new consortium of programmes across the Pacific region, known as the Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts (Palac).

With members including top liberal arts programmes from the US, Canada, China – and with plans to include Japan, Australia and Vietnam – Palac aims to develop a new ethos of global liberal arts through a “meta-university” that pools ideas and expertise on research and education. For instance, Palac plans to sponsor focused dialogues on urgent global issues, such as the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

We aim to embody the fact that the liberal arts are becoming less a Western-led phenomenon. And we aim to ensure that the model continues to be co-developed across the world by an ever-growing community of nations.

Singapore may be about to lose its flagship liberal arts provision, but we aim to do all we can to make sure that the closure of Yale-NUS remains an isolated case.

Bryan Penprase is vice-president for sponsored research and external academic relations at Soka University of America and the founding academic director of the Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts Colleges. He was previously a founding faculty member of Yale-NUS College. Thomas Schneider is professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern studies at the University of British Columbia and founding executive director of the Pacific Alliance of Liberal Arts Colleges.

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