SINGAPORE: Yale tie-up to proceed despite controversy

After months of controversy and deliberations over funding, the National University of Singapore and Yale University last week announced that they will establish a new autonomous Yale-NUS college within two years as Singapore's first liberal arts college based on the US model.

The partnership is seen as a major development in Singapore's aim to become a knowledge hub for Asia and for its ambitions to attract and nurture the region's top brains.

It represents a departure for Singapore as undergraduate degrees at its own highly-regarded universities tend to be subject-specific and highly specialised, even in the humanities.

In its official announcement this week Yale said the new institution "will prepare high potential students - from Singapore, the rest of Asia and beyond - for leadership and engaged citizenship in today's complex and rapidly changing world."

It will be Yale's first branch campus outside the US, although degrees will be conferred by NUS and the curriculum will be developed jointly.

"What will be distinctive about this college would be the fact that it will bring together some of the best elements of liberal arts education that is already present in Yale [and] take some strengths from NUS and develop a new curriculum that really blends the ideas and contexts of the West with ideas and contexts of Asia," NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan said.

The first 150 students will be admitted in 2013. The numbers will be increased steadily by 250 new students per year to reach around 1,000. Some 30 to 35 core members of faculty will also be hired.

Although not mentioned in the official announcement or Yale President Richard Levin's email to Yale faculty this week, concerns over academic freedom are never far from the surface. Yale's own newspaper condemned the move within hours of the announcement on Thursday from Yale University's base in Newhaven, Connecticut.

In a hard-hitting editorial in its Friday edition, Yale Daily News described the Singapore-Yale tie up as "not another innocuous international programme. It is a fully-fledged commitment to a partnership that runs counter to our values. And it will set a dangerous precedent for other major institutions looking eastward in the years to come.

"Setting up shop in a censorship-laden regime will render true liberal arts scholarship impossible," Yale Daily News said. "Beyond the classroom this collusion has even worse implications. We will become the academic partners of an oppressive autocracy, tools of their illiberal ambitions."

"The nation's ruling elite holds all the chips and pays the checks. To trust the assurances about academic freedom would be naive. But to rope our name to an oppressive autocracy would be profoundly irresponsible."

Several Yale professors have openly expressed reservations. English and political science lecturer Mark Oppenheimer told University World News recently that Yale should not collaborate on the venture as Singapore's human and academic rights "do not square with the fundamental ideas on which a liberal arts college builds its convictions".

But NUS president Tan told Singaporean media this week that his counterparts at Yale were now "fully satisfied" that academic freedom would not be an issue for the autonomous college nor would it affect Yale's brand image.

"There are a small number of individuals who have concerns and it's more widely reported than the rest who are in support of this," Tan claimed

"It would have been irresponsible for Yale to have gone forward without having reached a degree of confidence about these matters [of academic freedom] that would justify going forward," Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School and an advisor on the Singapore project, said on Thursday.

"We have been given the strongest possible guarantees by the government of Singapore and by [NUS] that on the campus of the liberal arts college, the principle of freedom of expression will be honored just as on the campus of Yale in New Haven."

The freedom debate has been raging since last September when Yale and NUS signed their memorandum of understanding. The go-ahead announcement was originally due in February, but the budget for the new institution was delayed over discussions with Singapore on financial aid for international students.

Apart from income from tuition fees, which NUS Vice-president Lily Kong confirmed would be lower than studying at Yale in the US, Singapore is providing almost all the finance for the new institution from public funds.

Although exact amounts have not been disclosed, Singapore's government approved "a very generous allocation to subsidise the college's operating expenses" according to Yale president Richard Levin.

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