The seemingly innocuous denial of tenure to a journalism professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University has exploded into a full-blown row over academic freedom after an overseas assessor suggested that the professor was being unfairly targeted for his outspoken political comments.
Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Nanyang Techological University (NTU), was denied tenure last month. Tenure would have meant he that could not be sacked from his job without just cause.
George was previously denied tenure in 2009 when he was promoted to the position of associate professor, which was seen as unusual by local experts as academic promotions are normally accompanied by tenure.
An overseas assessor of his case, Karin Wahl-Jorgensen from the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom, has publicised what she sees as an injustice.
“As a reviewer, Cherian George's tenure case was watertight,” Wahl Jorgensen tweeted this week and suggested: “It makes no sense on grounds of research and teaching.”
Wahl-Jorgensen described the denial of tenure as an “outrage”, adding that she “did not want to be associated with what I consider to be the wrong decision made for the wrong reasons”.
In an earlier tweet she described George as “a true public intellectual with broad 'registers of impact' in Singapore and abroad”. She had been taught by George, “and he is eminently qualified for a tenure contract”.
According to Wahl-Jorgensen, denying George tenure “makes Singapore and NTU look very bad” and raises “big question marks about international collaborations”.
Others noted that George, who joined NTU in 2004 and had previously been a political journalist on Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, and was an independent and outspoken commentator not afraid to speak his mind.
He has criticised the Singaporean government’s control of the media and policies of the ruling People’s Action Party.
Nanyang Technological University defended its tenure process in a statement released on 26 February.
"NTU has a rigorous tenure process. All NTU faculty seeking tenure go through the same process. More than 1,000 faculty have gone through this process at NTU in the last six years and so far, more than 55% have been granted tenure," the statement said.
"The tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise comprising internal and external reviewers. The two equally important criteria are distinction in research and scholarship, and high quality teaching. Service and other contributions to the university, profession or community are also taken into consideration."
A petition was launched by NTU students affirming George’s “stellar teaching credentials” and calling on NTU to explain the denial of tenure. Within days the petition had garnered over 700 signatures.
In a comment on the petition page on Facebook, William Ray Lengenbach, an associate professor and head of media at Sunway University College, said: “Cherian George is a significant regional intellectual and his views on Singapore politics should have no bearing on his tenure.
“If there indeed is government pressure on the university's decisions, it is time for academic staff and administration to stand up against such pressures.”
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