A recent News editorial (“News’ View: Keep Yale out of Singapore,” Feb. 11), suggested that Yale’s proposed partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS) in founding a liberal arts college is of little benefit to Yale and may damage Yale’s “brand.” I believe that the opposite is true — so much so that I have agreed to become the first dean of the new college when it begins.
Yale’s reach into rapidly-growing, highly-educated Asian societies will grow as a result of this venture. And President Levin and Provost Salovey’s community letter last fall articulately expressed the exciting advantages of introducing a new model of undergraduate education to Asia. But beyond the institutional imperatives, the new college will directly benefit teaching and learning in New Haven and throughout the world. In fact, imagining a liberal arts education in an Asian context has already provided Yale faculty members with new insights and ideas.
My colleagues in the humanities and social sciences are excited to explore the possibilities of a program similar to Directed Studies that encompasses Asian as well as Western traditions. I can personally testify that teaching science to non-scientists looks very different in a context where students have been educated in Asian secondary schools, and where one could imagine creating sequences of courses that build upon each other. Innovative pedagogical techniques will be far easier to implement in classrooms and study spaces that have been designed with modern technology in mind, rather than retrofitted. And teaching in an institution without departmental boundaries provides exciting new opportunities for interdisciplinary studies. All of these innovations and more will be implemented in the new college, and those that are the most successful will return to New Haven to enhance the educational experience here.
Of course, a liberal education can thrive only if there is freedom of expression in the classroom and in research, and some critics suggest that this is not currently possible in Singapore. But a study of the scholarly articles published by NUS faculty show critical reviews of government policies and room for humanities scholarship on such topics as queer theory. And in NYU’s Law School Program at NUS, where the new college will be located, there are courses on human rights where controversial issues are fully addressed. Many of the books that critics claim are “banned” are actually on the library shelves at NUS.
After extensive consultations with people recently and currently involved in educational ventures in Singapore, those of us involved in setting up the new college believe that academic freedom in teaching and research appropriate for a liberal arts institution exists. The draft agreement between Yale and NUS affirms both institutions’ commitment to academic freedom. If there is backsliding on this crucial issue, or if the situation changes in some unfortunate way, the agreement allows Yale to pull out at any time, and we would do so if necessary. But given our Singaporean partners’ clear commitment to appropriate norms of free expression on campus, I doubt that we will need to avail ourselves of this option.
In a larger sense, the whole issue of whether the Singaporean polity is sufficiently virtuous for Yale to engage with is misconceived. No country is ideal or perfect. Indeed, given our own government’s conduct over the past decade, it feels particularly inappropriate for Americans to be lecturing others on “caning.”
Is Yale a university, or a monastery? Monasteries can be great centers of learning and culture, and in many places and times have been instrumental in creating and transmitting knowledge. But monasteries sit apart and aloof from the sinful world, the better to preserve the virtue of the institution and the people who inhabit it. By contrast, the mission of a university is to engage with the world by generating educated students and deeper understanding that will help to mitigate society’s deficiencies. Viewed in this light, the appropriate question is whether our engagement with Singapore is likely to improve the world.
I believe it will. Singapore has set itself the goal of becoming an educational hub for Asia and the world. It realizes that liberal arts education brings with it many qualities that are crucial for this quest. Yale should help it in this endeavor, even if the setting seems very distant in geography, culture and politics. In so doing, we will extend the positive values underlying Yale’s “brand” to one of the most vibrant and rapidly advancing parts of our world.
Charles Bailyn ’81 is the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of Astronomy & Physics and the dean designate of Yale-NUS.