Faculty approve Yale-NUS resolution

Despite a statement of opposition from University President Richard Levin, faculty voted by a wide margin to pass a resolution urging Yale-NUS College to uphold principles of non-discrimination and civil liberties at Thursday’s Yale College faculty meeting.

The roughly 200 Yale College faculty members who attended the meeting spent two and a half hours discussing revisions to a resolution proposed last month by philosophy and political science professor Seyla Benhabib GRD ’77. After debating the text of the three-paragraph resolution nearly word for word, professors — including some who support the Singaporean liberal arts college — approved a version that begins by expressing concern over a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights” in the country. Immediately before the final vote, Levin made a brief statement objecting to that language.

“I felt that the tone of the resolution, especially the first sentence, carried a sense of moral superiority that I found unbecoming,” he told the News Thursday night.

The meeting marked the first time faculty members have taken a stance on Yale-NUS through a formal vote. Levin said in February that the decision to launch the college ultimately rested with the Yale Corporation, as the venture is a new school and not a program within Yale College.

In the final version of the resolution, the Yale College faculty expresses concern over the history of civil rights in Singapore, urges Yale-NUS “to respect, protect and further” non-discrimination and civil liberty, and states that these values comprise the core of a liberal arts education.

Benhabib told the News Thursday that she was satisfied with the results of the meeting.

“I am really proud of the way in which the Yale College faculty rose to the occasion and debated relentlessly for two and a half hours this resolution and its details,” Benhabib said. “I think we just have to sit back and take stock, but it’s a big moment for Yale and this is not the time to spin things every which way.”

While faculty agreed on the broad principles of the last two paragraphs — which urged Yale-NUS to respect the ideals that “lie at the heart of liberal arts education” — the first paragraph’s statement on the Singaporean government led to contentious debate.

Economics Department Chair Benjamin Polak, who supports the Yale-NUS project, said some professors worried the discussion of the Singaporean government in the resolution would be “offensive” or “arrogant.” Polak said he voted for the resolution because he thinks it will strengthen the partnership between Yale and the National University of Singapore, 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.

Sociology professor Deborah Davis, chair of the social sciences faculty search committee for Yale-NUS, proposed the most significant revision to the resolution, which was defeated after a long debate. Under that revision, the resolution would have been reduced to a single-paragraph statement upholding the principles of non-discrimination and civil liberty. It would not have specified that these principles be upheld for “sexual minorities and migrant workers” in Singapore, or discuss the history of the nation’s government, professors who attended the meeting said.

Classics professor Victor Bers, an outspoken critic of the Singapore venture, called Davis’ revision “pablum” during the faculty meeting debate and told the News he viewed it as an attempt “to water down Seyla Benhabib’s resolution to the point where it had almost no meaning.”

In a final change to the resolution, faculty voted to remove the adjective “proposed” from the description of the Yale-NUS project in the first paragraph. Yale College Dean Mary Miller said striking “proposed” was important for the faculty to move from thinking of Yale-NUS as a possibility to accepting Yale’s commitment to the project.

Faculty members who attended the meeting emphasized that even seemingly minor details of punctuation were debated rigorously.

“People picked apart the words, commas, semicolons,” said Joel Rosenbaum, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology who voted for the resolution.

Miller characterized the final vote, which was conducted by paper ballot, as “substantially in favor of the resolution, but also substantially divided.”

Three professors interviewed estimated that about 100 to 110 faculty voted in favor of the resolution, while around 70 voted against it. University Spokesman Thomas Conroy declined to release the exact vote in a Thursday email, saying vote details of faculty meetings are not public.

Under Robert’s Rules of Order, which govern the procedure of faculty meetings, Miller said votes can be taken by voice, standing or ballot. Bers said he felt the paper ballot vote was important because faculty have told him “they are afraid to have the administration see how they vote.”

The resolution drew support from both faculty who oppose Yale’s involvement in Singapore and those who support or are actively involved in planning the project.

Political science professor Bryan Garsten, a member of the social sciences faculty search committee for Yale-NUS, said the language of the resolution risks doing “injustice” to his colleagues in Singapore working on the project. Still, he said he ultimately voted for the resolution.

“I felt that the partnership we have with our colleagues in Singapore is strong enough, and that people who we’ve been working with are fundamentally on the same side on the question of intellectual freedom and its connection to the liberal arts,” Garsten said.

History professor Anders Winroth, who also supports the Yale-NUS project, said he voted for the resolution even though he thought its language was “poorly formulated” as it lacked “precision” and “eloquence.” He added that he thinks the dissatisfaction some faculty members have with governance and decision-making processes at Yale underlies the debate on Yale-NUS.

But English and comparative literature professor Pericles Lewis, who chairs the humanities faculty search committee for Yale-NUS, said he voted against the resolution because the reference to Singapore’s history was “broad-brushed” and “a little out of context for a Yale College faculty resolution,” though he said he supports the resolution’s support of non-discrimination, academic freedom and civil liberty.

“I hope that people in Singapore will realize this is not intended by the faculty of Yale College as an insult to Singapore as a society or as a nation,” he said.

Yale-NUS is scheduled to open in fall 2013.

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