Yale Faculty Registers Concern About Campus in Singapore

April 06, 2012

In a vote with more symbolic weight than substance, Yale College faculty registered its concern over a partnership with the National University of Singapore to create that nation's first liberal-arts college.

In a vote of 100 to 69 Thursday night, the arts and science faculty members who make up Yale College, passed a resolution expressing "concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore" and calling on the new college to uphold principles of civil liberty, nondiscrimination, and political freedom—values that it says are "at the heart of liberal-arts education." (Faculty members also considered but rejected a more mildly worded statement.)

The measure, introduced by a political-science professor, Seyla Benhabib, does not state outright opposition to the project, which Yale trustees signed off on more than a year ago. Indeed, the university's president, Richard C. Levin, has said faculty members don't get to say yea or nay on the plan because the undergraduate institution, known as Yale-NUS College, won't offer Yale courses or award Yale degrees.

For all that, Thursday's vote is more than empty protest. It comes, awkwardly, just as job offers are being made to the first faculty hires for Yale-NUS College, and the result is certain to be noted in the city-state (which is footing the bill for the new institution). It underscores campus division over Yale's international ambition. And it serves as something of a rebuke to the long-serving Mr. Levin, who has championed the collaboration as a historic opportunity to spread the liberal arts in Asia.

"It might be mainly symbolic," says Christopher L. Miller, a professor of African-American studies and French, "but it is an important symbol."

Still, the show of faculty dissent is unlikely to upset plans for the Singapore college, which is set to open in the fall of 2013. Groups of Yale and National University of Singapore professors have spent the past year crafting the core of an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum and vetting more than 2,500 applicants for the roughly 30 initial faculty slots.

"The vote won't derail our work," said Charles D. Bailyn, a Yale professor of astronomy and physics who will serve as the first dean of the faculty at Yale-NUS. Mr. Bailyn, a Yale graduate, called the resolution "unnecessarily confrontational to our collaborators" and said a commitment to free expression had always been part of the partnership. "It doesn't change anything," he said of the vote.

In a written statement, Mr. Levin said, "I value the engagement of my colleagues and their commitment to important principles, even though I opposed the resolution because it did not capture the mutual respect that has characterized the Yale-NUS collaboration from the beginning."

Excitement and Concern

Mr. Levin and Tan Chorh Chuan, NUS's president, announced the new college with great fanfare last March. Singapore's first liberal-arts institution and Asia's first residential college, it also is the first campus outside New Haven, Conn., that Yale has developed.

"We hope to create a really exciting model of liberal arts, one many Asian countries will find attractive because of its broader perspective on the complex problems of the world," Mr. Levin said in an interview at the time.

The four-year institution bears Yale's name, but it is an autonomous college of the National University of Singapore, and students will receive degrees from NUS. Singapore's government also will pay for the new campus and will reimburse Yale for all costs incurred.

That fact has unsettled some faculty on Yale's campus, who question whether the university should work in an autocratic country where freedoms of speech and public demonstration are curtailed, homosexuality is illegal, and the death penalty can be imposed for drug offenses. In an essay published in The Chronicle shortly after the announcement, Mr. Miller, the French and African-American studies professor, wrote, "The Yale-NUS venture raises troubling questions about the translation of academic values and freedoms into a repressive environment."

"I think it's problematic to enter into partnerships where you're not free to criticize your partner," Mr. Miller said in a recent interview. "It's a slippery slope."

Others on campus, however, have been enthusiastic about the endeavor. Yale faculty members have worked with counterparts in Singapore to draw up the outlines of an interdisciplinary core curriculum, excited by the idea of creating a newly invigorated model of the liberal arts in an East-meets-West context. Others have served on one of three search committees, in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, sifting through hundreds of applications, holding interviews in New Haven and Singapore, and dealing with dawn and dusk videoconference calls (to accommodate the 12-hour time difference) to select the best candidates.

Stephen L. Darwall, a professor of philosophy and a Yale graduate, said he initially was somewhat skeptical about the partnership, fearing that it could distract administrators from key issues on the home campus. But after attending meetings about the new college, he became intrigued by the idea of reimagining the liberal arts and agreed to serve on a search committee. "I think engagement is at the heart of the liberal arts," he said, "and this is an opportunity to be engaged."

Faculty Not Consulted

Mr. Darwall said he believes faculty members should be able to voice their opposition to Yale-NUS. Yet, he said he is perplexed by why the resolution was introduced only this March, a year after the official announcement and a year and a half after Mr. Levin and Yale's provost, Peter Salovey, outlined the proposed partnership in an eight-page prospectus to faculty. "It's not like they pulled a rabbit out of a hat," he said.

Mr. Levin also held a pair of town-hall meetings open to faculty, although the meetings reportedly were poorly attended.

Michael J. Fischer, a professor of computer science, said he had concerns with the plan but was not overly apprehensive because he assumed it would be put before the Yale College faculty for debate and a vote as had other high-profile subjects, such as a joint program with Peking University and a decision to allow the ROTC back on campus. "I was absolutely sure it would come before us," he said.

But Mr. Levin has said that Yale's involvement in the project was rightly a decision of the Yale Corporation, the university's board of trustees, not the faculty, because Yale-NUS is a distinct institution from Yale with its own diploma, curriculum, and, soon, president.

That has not mollified critics, who argue that if Yale's name and expertise are used, they should have a say. "The faculty told the administration in no uncertain terms that you should have consulted us before carrying our name and our pedagogical mission into strange territory," James Sleeper, a lecturer in political science who is married to Ms. Benhabib, said after the vote.

Like other international projects that have run into opposition, such as Duke University's plan to open a business school in China, the debate at Yale appears to be as much about governance as about the partnership with Singapore. Indeed, there has been discord in recent months over university decisions on the budget, the graduate school, and shared services, such as computing.

The resolution, Mr. Miller said, "stakes some ground for the Yale College faculty to say that we're concerned and we're going to be involved."


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