TEO: Yale needs a Yale-NUS policy

On Feb. 23, word got out that Dr. Cherian George, an associate professor of journalism at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, and one of the foremost — indeed, one of the only — public intellectuals in Singapore, was denied tenure for the second time. In a meeting with the administration five days later, several NTU students were told that as a matter of university policy, Dr. George would have to leave the school in the next academic year.

A few here in the Yale community might remember Dr. George’s lucid account of Singaporean state-media relations at a 2011 lecture hosted by the law school. I do, and I am perplexed that the quality of his teaching reportedly counted against him. This is to say nothing of the fact that in 2010, NTU saw fit to award him its highest teaching prize. Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University, an external reviewer in Dr. George’s case, said that in her opinion he was an academic “superstar,” but was denied tenure because “he sometimes expresses political opinions.” Even if there were no political considerations behind the denial of tenure, it is an inexplicable decision.

Nevertheless, the curious case of Dr. George’s tenure is between him and NTU. But one wonders if Yale-NUS might face similar interference as it operates in Singapore. How will Yale-NUS deal with a similar “tenure veto,” if it should ever happen? What options does it have? What should it do if one-time incidents turn into recurring patterns?

In discussions both public and private, it is clear that the Yale-NUS administration has put much thought into creating policies that maximize Yale-NUS’s freedom to operate as Yale does in New Haven. The continuing conversation between Yale-NUS administrators and concerned Yale Singaporeans has left us reassured that they have thought through every detail possible.

But I am not so sure the same is true for the mothership. Even though incoming President Salovey surely has a lot on his plate, his silence on Yale-NUS is unsettling. Few other top Yale administrators have shown many outward signs of involvement or engagement over the last year.

One hopes that they, like Yale-NUS, have their contingency plans ready. But their public silence feels unnervingly like a silence of disinterest and complacency. Although the Yale-NUS administration has assumed the mantle of bringing Yale-NUS College to fruition, Yale now has a different role to play. It must articulate and defend its vision of Yale-NUS — even the aspects of which its partners might not like. My question for Yale’s administration is, what is its Yale-NUS policy?

Why is this important? Yale-NUS is technically separate from Yale, but it does share our name. What will Yale do if Yale-NUS comes under pressure that, because of its location, resources and organizational structure, it cannot handle on its own? Yale cannot leave Yale-NUS to its own devices; its name is quite literally on the line. This is why the Yale administration’s outward disinterest is so worrying.

Yale’s first step is clear. Faculty critics have persistently asked for the release of Yale-NUS’s founding document, signed in 2010 by President Levin and Singapore’s minister for education. I have come to agree with them. Without knowing what has been agreed on, the soundbites dispensed from time to time have nothing to back them up, and are insufficient to quell the unease felt by many in the Yale community. What would quell this unease is a clear, unequivocal statement of intent, binding on both sides. The founding document is precisely such a statement of intent. Why else do people make rules and sign contracts?

Unless the administration has something to hide, jointly releasing the document with NUS and the Ministry of Education is the most expedient move. Yale’s administration must let its Singaporean partners know that accountability and trust demand this.

But this is just the first step. Looking to the future, President Salovey’s administration must remain involved. Yale-NUS must not grow up in a single-parent family; otherwise, it would be indecent for Yale to leave its name on the venture.

Yale can’t do anything for Dr. Cherian George (though others have suggested that Yale-NUS should hire him). But it has much to do to reassure the community that it will do all it can to ensure that Yale-NUS’s standards and protections are nothing short of those we have here.

Rayner Teo is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at rayner.teo@yale.edu .

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