Yale-NUS college recruitment begins despite faculty freedom concerns

Concerns that world-class professors would be deterred by the ongoing freedoms controversy over Yale University’s tie-up with the National University of Singapore (NUS) to create a liberal arts college in Singapore, have proved unfounded, according to the local university. It said recruitment was forging ahead.

The tie-up has been dogged by a debate on the extent to which Singapore allows academic freedom, and criticism from Yale faculty.

This came to a head on 5 April after Yale academics in the United States voted in favour of a resolution expressing concern about political and civil rights in Singapore – a significant, if symbolic, move by Yale faculty given the high turnout, of almost 200 academics, to debate and vote on the resolution.

The Yale faculty resolution urged the new college to “respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination and full political freedom, both on the Yale-NUS campus and in Singapore as a whole.”

But academic recruitment for the joint college, which is being funded by the Singaporean government, is continuing apace, despite fears that it might be spooked by the debate.

“For a pioneering cross-cultural initiative such as the Yale-NUS College, diverse views and debate are natural and to be expected,” said Lily Kong, vice-president of NUS and acting executive vice-president of Yale-NUS College.

“Nevertheless, we are disappointed by the resolution that was passed at the Yale college faculty meeting and the manner in which many of the views were expressed in the days prior to the vote.

“They do not reflect the spirit of open-mindedness, mutual respect and genuine desire for understanding that should characterise liberal education and cross-cultural collaborations for the advancement of worthy educational goals.”

Kong told University World News: “The issues of academic freedom and non-discrimination had been extensively discussed with Yale previously, and agreement reached to the satisfaction of both Yale and NUS. The College is committed to uphold the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry.”

Many of the Yale faculty – who voted 100 for and 69 against the resolution – said they were nonetheless in favour of the new institution due to open in 2013.

Yale economics department chair Benjamin Polak, who supports the Yale-NUS project, said some professors worried that the discussion of the Singaporean government in the resolution would be ‘offensive’ or ‘arrogant’.

Polak said he voted for the resolution because he believed it would strengthen the partnership between Yale and NUS, explaining that the main principles of the resolution go hand-in-hand with a liberal arts education.

“I think that one can be strongly supportive of the project, as I am, and support this resolution strongly, as I did,” Polak said, in remarks carried by Yale Daily News.

Sensitive timing

The timing of the resolution was sensitive, with recruitment of both faculty and students already under way, and with fears that it might deter some applicants.

Sources at NUS said there were concerns that the strength of the debate might make some academics feel ‘tainted’ or ‘in acquiescence’ with the Singaporean regime’s stance on academic freedom by taking up a post there.

However, Kong said Yale-NUS was in the process of finalising shortlists and beginning to make offers to selected individuals, with applications received “from all over the world”.

While prospective academics were following the discussions on freedoms in Singapore closely, “we have not seen withdrawals [of candidates for faculty positions] on account of the resolution and debates,” she said.

“Overall, preparations for the college are progressing steadily and encouragingly.”

Just after the resolution the Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn told Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper that the first round of academic job offers had been completed and “in no case that I know of did it seem to make a big difference to their enthusiasm for Yale-NUS.

“They are as eager as ever to join the college and come to Singapore.”

Cultural sensitivity

However, in Singapore there has been some criticism of the resolution even though the wording in the original version introduced in March that ‘demanded’ the new institution respect the principles of freedom, was toned down to ‘urge’.

Some NUS academics have said publicly that they regard the resolution as ‘confrontational’ and ‘one-sided’ as it did not include NUS input.

Students were also outspoken: “I see some attempt at tact, but it didn’t translate culturally. Criticising a partner publicly during this crucial trust-building phase is a last-resort negotiating tactic used just prior to walking away from the deal,” said Ng E-Ching, a Singaporean student at Yale in a commentary carried in both Yale Daily News and Kent Ridge Common, the independent student newspaper named after Kent Ridge, where NUS is situated in Singapore.

“The resolution also annoys the Singaporean in the street, who already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal – free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, not even the risk of putting the Yale name on the diploma,” she said, referring to the degrees from Yale-NUS, which will be conferred by NUS.

Another Singaporean student Rocco Hu, who said he had applied to the new college, claimed that even critics of academic freedom in Singapore did not necessarily approve of the resolution.

“Many liberals who raised concerns about the Yale faculty resolution in fact agree wholeheartedly with the values set forth in the resolution, but their issue is with the careless concern with which the resolution and faculty comments surrounding it were put forth, a manner some may interpret to be indicative of arrogance,” Hu said.

Kong told University World News she was aware that prospective students were following the discussions on academic and other freedoms closely.

“Some have written their own reflections in thoughtful, balanced and nuanced ways. If they became Yale-NUS students, we would be proud of them,” she said.

Working together

However, sources close to NUS-Yale said in the wake of the resolution and other Yale concerns raised during the debate about it, that some prospective faculty who may join the new college have expressed concern at how they may be received at Yale’s US campus later this year when they are expected to spend time developing the new college’s curriculum and structure in partnership with Yale faculty.

Sources said there were concerns that Yale-NUS academics would need to “learn from Yale” rather than meeting as equals, and that Yale-NUS academics may be seen as “not up to maintaining US standards of freedom”.

There has also been some worry at Yale over the extra work required of Yale faculty in mentoring academics for the new college.

Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale who introduced the 5 April resolution, has also said in a published commentary:

“We are expected to host and train the new faculty members of Yale-NUS here in New Haven as early as this fall, the president of Yale-NUS writes that classrooms will be equipped for teleconferencing with classes that we teach in New Haven, and the first students admitted by Yale-NUS will come to New Haven in summer of 2013 and attend our classes, where special focus will be placed on encouraging them to participate freely and learn to speak their minds.

“When have we been asked whether or not we agree with all this?”

* Adele Yung also contributed to this article.