Miller: Yale’s principles for sale in Singapore

Last Thursday brought news of the final agreement between Yale and the National University of Singapore to open a joint campus. Coverage of this story in the News and the superb editorials of February 11 and April 1 have focused mainly on issues of academic freedom and political repression. I want to raise another question that has been largely overlooked: the position of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender faculty and students in relation to this new institution, Yale-NUS.

Many years ago, Yale added sexual orientation to the list of protections covered by its non-discrimination policy. In their announcement on Thursday, President Levin and Provost Salovey stated that “our agreement with NUS … affirms consistency with Yale’s policy on non-discrimination.” This is impossible. Non-discrimination cannot be ensured on a campus in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal. As recently as 2009, the law minister of Singapore said that the anti-gay law would not be repealed. Yale-NUS will not be an island unto itself; it will be subject to all the laws of Singapore. So, even if the new college does not discriminate within its walls, it will be unable to protect those whose sexuality is banned by the laws of the state. No assurances from the administration can change that.

I am a gay faculty member. The advent of Yale-NUS thus places me in a uniquely compromised position. President Levin and Provost Salovey have invited Yale faculty to teach in the new college. Some of my colleagues will indeed choose to teach in Singapore. The irrefutable fact is that any LGBT faculty (and for that matter, students) who choose to participate in the program will be forced to fear arrest because of who they are. The likelihood of actual incarceration is not the issue: the problem is the law itself.

The new campus’ dean-designate Prof. Charles Bailyn admits that the real problems with the proposal lie in the wider context of the Singaporean state: freedoms are only guaranteed on campus, and off-campus “is a different case, a much more complicated and in some ways difficult thing” (“Academic freedom promised at Yale-NUS,” April 1). But his opinion column seeks to discredit all moral concerns, relegating them to the “monastery.” (“Yale-NUS will build our brand,” Feb. 14). This is cynical in the extreme.

Professor Bailyn describes a process of vetting faculty participants to ensure they “understand what they’re getting into.” As part of this process, Yale faculty should ask themselves if they can in good conscience accept a position in a regime where their LGBT colleagues are legally banned. No member of the Yale community who cares about LGBT rights should have anything to do with Yale-NUS.

Recent e-mails with the professors involved in the planning of this project have earned me mini-lectures on how we live in “a morally ambiguous world” in which choices have “dark sides,” and an admonition not to be “distracted” from gay rights issues here in the US — not something I need to be instructed about. These colleagues seem to sincerely believe that change is on the way in Singapore. “Maybe,” I am told, the presence of Yale will “indirectly influence” Singaporean law. Maybe not. But a “maybe,” and meek inquiries concerning this issue addressed to Singaporean officials, are no basis on which to sign this agreement — not when a fundamental human right is at stake. Faced with the discriminatory “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, the Yale Law School maintained an uncompromising moral stance, refusing complicity until the policy was abolished. The undergraduate community could not tolerate the return of ROTC to campus until the discriminatory policy had been revoked. Where are the principles of the larger institution now?

More broadly, it is time to consider the ethical costs associated with Yale’s increasingly warm relationships with authoritarian régimes. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Yale five years ago, the red carpet was rolled out. But free speech —which Yale claims to protect — was rolled up, curtailed and compromised for the occasion. Students who chalked the words “free speech” and “teach democracy” on a sidewalk were threatened with arrest. A CNN producer was hustled out of Woodbridge Hall for daring to ask Rick Levin a question — “We invited you to cover an event, not to hold a press conference,” barked Helaine Klasky, head of public affairs. Before a hand-picked audience, President Hu was welcomed and praised by President Levin. He spoke. He answered two chosen, soft-ball questions, “submitted in advance in writing” and selected by Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico and head of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization. Head of an authoritarian, free speech-constricting government, Hu must have felt right at home. By the time a panel of professors discussed human rights abuses at Battell Chapel later in the day, he was long gone.

This was a travesty of free speech, perpetrated by a university that should have nothing to do with such charades. (Soon thereafter, it was announced that Yale would be the first American university allowed to buy securities in the Chinese market.) This precedent should cause the Yale community to take the administration’s assurances about academic freedom in Singapore with a grain of salt. Yale’s principles are clearly for sale.

The Yale-NUS venture takes us beyond questions of free speech protocol, and into uncharted territory. Others have raised the issues of academic freedom in relation to Singapore, and the administration’s responses have been far from reassuring. But the LGBT issue must also be part of this discussion. By forging this agreement, Yale has violated its own non-discrimination policy.

According to President Levin, Yale “will always have the option of dissociating itself from the project.” Yale should dissociate itself from the project now. Yale should not go back to Singapore until homosexuality is legal — and until other fundamental human rights and free speech issues are resolved as well.

Christopher L. Miller GRD ’83 is the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American Studies and French.

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