FISCHER: Yale-NUS is not Yale

Yale-NUS, the new liberal arts college being created in Singapore under the guidance of Yale University and the National University of Singapore, raises two almost completely separate issues. Both are important but easily confused. First, is it possible and desirable to attempt to establish a Western-style liberal arts college in an environment whose social norms do not support freedom of expression? And second, what is the relationship between Yale and Yale-NUS?

Most of the discussion has centered around the first issue. I want to share my views on the second and say why I am troubled by what I am seeing.

Yale is a collegium of scholars dedicated to create, preserve and disseminate knowledge in an environment of mutual trust, tolerance and respect. Its goal is to bring light and truth to a world often confused by darkness and deceit. For over 300 years, the name Yale has stood for these values that the Yale community holds so dear. The current faculty are stewards for these ideals and have the responsibility to preserve and perpetuate them for future generations and for the benefit of society.

The new college, Yale-NUS, is being promoted as “an entirely new liberal arts college in Asia [that] would allow Yale to extend to other parts of the world its long tradition of leadership in shaping liberal education,” according to a September 12, 2010 email sent to the Yale faculty by President Richard Levin and Provost Peter Salovey.

“Yale has never embarked on a joint project to create an overseas campus bearing its name, but this initiative to establish a Yale-NUS College has special appeal,” they say. But the Yale the administrators are talking about here is the Yale Corporation, not the real Yale — the collegium — which has never voted on this venture.

Despite the rhetoric, Yale-NUS is not a part of Yale. It is a new institution with its own governing board and funded by the Singaporean government. It will not teach Yale’s curriculum, nor will Yale approve Yale-NUS courses. Its faculty will not be subject to Yale’s rigorous appointment process. Its students will not receive Yale degrees.

Nevertheless, the publicity for the new college encourages one to believe that it is a part of Yale and that its degree will offer the same prestige as a real Yale degree. For example, the home page for Yale-NUS prominently displays a banner with the words “Yale-NUS College” against a Yale blue background, where “Yale” and “College” are in white, separated by the letters “NUS” in subdued orange.

Yes, Yale-NUS has ancillary ties to Yale. Yale President Richard Levin and Yale Vice-President and Secretary Linda Lorimer both serve on the Yale-NUS governing board. Yale-NUS Inaugural Dean of the Faculty Charles Bailyn is a Yale faculty member. Individual faculty and staff from Yale are playing roles in Yale-NUS faculty hiring and student admissions. But such dual service arrangements do not make Yale-NUS a part of Yale any more than does Levin’s service on the board of directors for American Express make American Express a part of Yale.

By conflating the two institutions under the banner of “Yale,” the meaning of the Yale brand changes to reflect a mixture of the values of the 300-year-old New Haven institution and the Yale-NUS experiment. The value of a Yale degree becomes diminished since it will be easily confused with the degree from a very different institution. Yale’s core values of freedom of expression and tolerance of diversity similarly become compromised. In the same 2010 email, Levin and Salovey admitted, “The limitations we would need to accept [on the scope of public discourse], given Singaporean tradition and law, have to be weighed against the opportunity we have to influence over time the curriculum and pedagogy in a major part of the world.”

Once freedom of expression is compromised at Yale-NUS, how comfortable can anyone feel that it will continue to be strenuously defended on the New Haven campus? Will Yale faculty feel uncomfortable about expressing views critical of the Singaporean government, perhaps out of fear of damage to our so-called colleagues at our satellite campus in Singapore, or perhaps out of fear of retribution from the Yale administration that has as-yet-undisclosed financial ties with the Singaporean government? Ethical standards cannot be compromised a little bit at a time and retain any force.

The new college may well meet an educational need within Singaporean society, but it is not Yale and must not bear the proud Yale name. Let us be transparent and honest and label it for what it is — a new college with an unproven track record in an environment that lacks many of the basic freedoms we take for granted.

I ask that the Yale name be removed from the new college, that the Yale administration make clear to all that Yale’s role in Yale-NUS is only as consultants and that the Yale collegium has no control, responsibility or affiliation with Yale-NUS.

Michael Fischer is a professor of computer science.

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