BENHABIB AND MILLER: Yale-NUS: In loco regiminis

Under the banal headline “Yale-NUS develops student group policies,” the News reported on an announcement by the governing board of this new institution. Yale-NUS policy “will prevent students from creating campus branches of existing Singaporean political parties, in accordance with the nation’s law.” Apparently, not even a junior branch of the ruling party — the PAP — will be allowed, and violators will no doubt be subjected to unspecified sanctions. Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis says the “Singaporean government will only become involved if illegal activity does occur.” So Yale-NUS officers and deans will clearly be required to report violators to the government.

The announcement thus confirms what Lewis seems to have inadvertently leaked to the Wall Street Journal in July, barely two weeks after taking office (“Singapore’s Venture With Yale to Limit Protests,” WSJ, July 16, 2012). Quoting and paraphrasing Lewis in a moment of complete self-contradiction, the article reported: “Students at the new school ‘are going to be totally free to express their views,’ but they won’t be allowed to organize political protests on campus.” Lewis said he was misrepresented, but the WSJ stood by its story, and the second (paraphrased) part of the statement is now officially confirmed by the governing board of Yale-NUS. In fact, the new announcement is more severe than what the WSJ reported: it is not just protest that is banned, but also political groups themselves.

A small but global firestorm followed the WSJ story. “Human Rights Watch Blasts Yale for Singapore Rules,” reported Foreign Policy, referring to a press release by HRW that criticized Yale for “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students. Instead of defending these rights, Yale buckled when faced with Singapore’s draconian laws on demonstrations and policies restricting student groups.” The News rightly editorialized: “Freedom is an afterthought to Yale’s venture into Singapore” (“Yale-NUS Students Deserve Free Speech,” July 23, 2012).

In the midst of this summer controversy, the only thing redeeming Yale’s reputation was the fact that the Yale faculty had voiced its reservations (not even its opposition) through a resolution adopted in March. (The resolution was denounced as “unbecoming” by President Richard Levin.)

The new announcement also specifies that “clubs that show disrespect for specific religions or racial groups” will be banned. This apparently unexceptionable prohibition — seemingly but only seemingly akin to “speech codes” in force on certain American campuses — takes on a different weight in Singapore, where Section 377A of the legal code bans male homosexual acts. What if the very fact of homosexuality and the active pursuit of LGBT rights are deemed “disrespectful of specific religions”? In a world where many religions condemn homosexuality, and in a country where the continuing ban on male homosexual acts is often explained as a political necessity attributable to religious pressure, this is not a far-fetched scenario.

So now it is official: an institution bearing Yale’s name — headed by professors and staff taken from Yale-New Haven — is in the business of restricting the rights of students. Yale–NUS students will not enjoy full political freedom, nor full freedom of association or speech. The officials of Yale-NUS will make sure that “partisan or political campaigning and fund-raising” do not take place on their campus. Instead of being in loco parentis, Yale-NUS will operate in loco regiminis — in the place of the state. This is hardly the foundation for a renewal of the liberal arts.

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