Freedom fears after outspoken lecturer’s appeal fails

Cherian George, an outspoken academic at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) who was denied full professorship earlier this year – sparking an international outcry – has failed in his appeal against the university’s decision to deny him tenure, it has emerged.

The case could have wider repercussions for academic freedom in Singapore, as George has been a fearless critic of the ruling party.

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a professor of journalism at Cardiff University who was one of the external reviewers of George’s application for tenure, said on Wednesday: “I am devastated to hear this news and devastated for Cherian – someone I know as an academic colleague – and for Singapore and what it says about academic freedom.”

She said it would have a “chilling effect” on all academics in Singapore and “a broader impact on Singapore’s ability to generate international academic collaboration”. It could also affect the country’s “general academic standing”, she told University World News.

Cherian George joined NTU in 2000. He was formerly a journalist with Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper. He has been critical of the ruling People’s Action Party and restrictions on the media, having written four books on the subject.

Currently an associate professor of journalism in NTU’s Wee Kim Kee School of Communication, his first application for tenure in 2009 was rejected. He appealed after he applied again and was denied tenure a second time earlier this year.

Faculty members at the school said they had also nominated George to be reappointed head of the journalism department, but that the university had turned them down.

NTU response

NTU told local news media that appeals are not made against the outcome but against the process of the tenure exercise. It added that the university’s president looks at all appeals carefully to ensure that the tenure process has been duly followed. If it has, the outcome will be upheld.

The university added it could not comment on specific cases and it was NTU policy to keep all employment matters confidential.

It has said in the past: "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 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."

But Wahl-Jorgensen told University World News on Wednesday: “Any idea that his research and teaching has not met the required standards of excellence are surprising to me and to other reviewers.

“It is an illogical decision and makes no sense at all from the point of view of the merits of the process.

“That application [for tenure] is outstanding to me and it is absurd that it does not meet the requirements. I can only speculate that the decision to deny it is essentially political,” she said.

Wahl-Jorgensen said she had expressed no doubt in her external review of his tenureship that George was “on a trajectory to professor status”, and indeed that he would already have achieved it “in any comparable institution in the world”.

Blow to academic freedom

She added that the news was “a devastating blow to academic freedom and more broadly for freedom of the press in Singapore.

“The real danger of these kinds of decisions is they will have a significant chilling effect. Self-censorship will result from it. Everyone wants to keep their job and it suggests that anyone critical of the government is not going to get a permanent government position.”

Wahl-Jorgensen also noted that NTU “has gone along with this process and made this decision and not responded to a massive groundswell of support” for George.

An NTU journalism professor, Ang Peng Hwa, and three other senior professors sent a letter in support of George to NTU President Bertil Andersson on Tuesday.

In the letter, the professors said that the controversy over the university's decision to deny George tenure was causing "serious damage to our academic reputation and professional integrity" and NTU's ability to attract top communication scholars.

It had also left them "perplexed as to what exactly NTU expects of its staff in order to earn tenure".

In a separate email to faculty members, Ang explained that the letter was written in the interests of the tenure process being made less ambiguous.

“It is also for those of us who plan to stay so that the environment in the school is conducive to collegiality, research and just good solid academic work," he wrote.

Ang said other faculty members wanted to support the letter but feared reprisals in the upcoming performance appraisals, or when their own applications for tenure came up.

Other members of the university have expressed private bafflement at the university’s stance. Some believe it makes the institutions look weak in a very public way.