For just a moment, Yale needs to ignore our venture in Singapore.
Later this month, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi will deliver a lecture as a Chubb Fellow. She is visiting America, in part, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for her dedication to democracy.
A cynic could dismiss Suu Kyi’s visit as just a public relations ploy by University President Richard Levin. After receiving flak for setting up Yale-NUS College in an authoritarian country, an embattled administration is reviving its image by honoring the most famous living opponent of Southeast Asian juntas — or so the thinking goes.
Some on campus have already advanced this train of thought — and, admittedly, their conclusion is supported by precedent. In 2010, Yale bestowed a Chubb on Mayor John DeStefano. At the time, Levin had just pledged financial support for the city’s school reform efforts, and DeStefano’s lecture was a thinly veiled attempt to boost the mayor’s credibility. Few students cared to attend, as did few members of the local community, despite Yale hawking the lecture to the public — all in all, not a shining moment for Master Jeffery Brenzel ’75, administrator of the Chubb Fellowship.
But Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit is different.
It would be foolhardy to suggest Suu Kyi is playing a hand in whitewashing Yale’s involvement in Singapore. She could have chosen to visit numerous other universities in her time in America — and, unlike John DeStefano, she does not need our validation. Suu Kyi deserves our respect. Juxtaposing her with Singapore overshadows her very real accomplishments fighting oppression.
So we should avoid the allusions to NUS when Aung San Suu Kyi lectures; they are unhelpful and most likely incorrect.
Yet we can still learn something when Suu Kyi comes to New Haven — not just about human rights in Burma, but about our University. The American pivot towards Asia reflects the region’s growing geopolitical importance, and Suu Kyi’s trip to the capitol similarly mirrors our new national policy. The message to the region from this congressional gesture: America will stand against Chinese hegemony without compromising our support for democratic values.
By hosting Aung San Suu Kyi, Yale plays a part in this new American strategy. The Chubb Fellowship has become a form of soft power, a symbol of approbation. (In comparison, by the way, the mistaken Yale-NUS partnership originated from Yale, not Washington, and its place in U.S. strategy is far less clear).
This alignment of our university’s and our country’s goals is welcome. By honoring Aung San Suu Kyi, Yale returns to its mission of service — not just community service (which is certainly important), but public service to our nation, a higher calling. America wants to honor Aung San Suu Kyi, and Yale stepped up to the plate.
In the past, young Yalies used to staff the halls of the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies for two-year stints, much like Teach for America today. Now, we see ROTC cadets walk proudly around campus in uniform, representing the return of this proud tradition of service to the nation.
When Aung San Suu Kyi becomes a Chubb Fellow, American policy will benefit. More importantly, though, Yalies will benefit, when we realize the importance of serving our country and her democratic goals around the world.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .