When one of the most high-profile and ambitious partnerships in international education abruptly comes undone, it’s inevitable to wonder: What does this mean for colleges and their global engagement?
As one observer said to me, “If this can happen to Yale, what about the rest of us?”
Three weeks ago, the National University of Singapore announced that it was, essentially, breaking up with Yale, ending their pathbreaking joint liberal-arts college and absorbing it into a new honors college at the university. The decision was entirely NUS’s; Yale leaders have said they wanted to continue Yale-NUS College, although they have refrained from criticizing the closure, which will happen in 2025.
In many ways, Yale-NUS is sui generis. Other colleges aren’t Yale, and most international partnerships don’t build entirely new institutions, with a new take on liberal-arts learning. Still, after spending the past couple of weeks talking with people from all sides of the partnership as well as international-education experts, I think there are a few takeaways:
Have clear lines of communication. In the Yale-NUS partnership, either side had the right to end the agreement unilaterally at certain dates. Still, it’s clear that the surprise nature of the announcement and the lack of consultation has upset many at Yale and especially at Yale-NUS. As Gabriel Hawawini, a former dean of Insead, the global business school with a campus in Singapore, told me, “It’s an issue of form, not substance. It could have been handled more diplomatically.”
Even solid partnerships can be affected by leadership changes. Tan Chorh Chuan, along with Yale’s Richard Levin, was author and architect of Yale-NUS College. A physician by training, he was a real believer in the power of the liberal arts. But Tan’s successor as NUS’s president, Tan Eng Chye, had less buy-in to the idea and had his own priorities for the university, sources told me. (For his part, Tan Eng Chye said in an email that he wanted to take Yale-NUS’s “rich history” and make it available to more students.) If the original evangelists of an international project leave, said Janice Bellace, a former president of Singapore Management University, maintaining the partnership “can become just a task on someone’s to-do list.”
Does the commitment go both ways? On paper, NUS and Yale were equal partners. But Kris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies global education, argues that the Singaporean side had more “skin in the game.” They bankrolled the project, and the Yale-NUS degree was awarded by NUS. Could Yale have had more leverage if it awarded a joint or dual degree? “You can’t build a lot of autonomy into a contract when you haven’t truly invested,” Olds said.
The “missionary” era of international partnerships is over. In the past, international partnerships have been primarily about exporting expertise from American and other western universities around the globe. But that approach doesn’t always take, said Linda Lim, who helped start a group of Singaporean academics known as Academia | SG. “You can’t just parachute a model in,” said Lim, a professor emerita at the University of Michigan, “you have to build it into the local context.” As higher-education quality rises worldwide, academic collaborations will be more reciprocal.
Know why your college wants to go global. Colleges can’t engage internationally solely with the idea of transferring knowledge, Hawawini told me — they need to have a clear idea of how it will fit into their broader mission and work. “You should want to go abroad because you want to change at home,” he said. I think in the coming weeks, months, and even years, there will be a lot of reflection at Yale about the lasting impact of its work in Singapore. The greatest impact, of course, will be on the students, alumni, and faculty at Yale-NUS. I’ll have more reporting on that in the coming weeks.
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