The debate over Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore is alive and well. Last week, no fewer than nine people authored or co-authored letters and columns in the News on the topic. Most were critical, arguing that our venture in Singapore violates our core values. Since 2009, when Levin announced Yale-NUS, others have asserted the impossibility of recreating our university in another setting.
The critics of the Singapore scheme raise an interesting question: What makes Yale unique that can’t be picked up and moved to Asia?
The answer isn’t so simple. My first thought was that Yale is its 12 residential colleges — you certainly can’t move those to Singapore. Unfortunately, the college system is only some 80 years old, meaning we would have to roll forward Yale’s birthday quite a bit.
Maybe Yale is its faculty, a company of scholars who police the halls of academia, as computer science professor Michael Fischer suggested recently (“Yale-NUS is not Yale,” March 23). This, too, doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. For much of the University’s early life, Yale’s faculty had little say in governance.
What about a set of eternal values? President Levin always talks about tolerance, open-mindedness and Isaiah Berlin. Are we a school that respects free speech — a freedom that does not exist in Singapore? That notion, too, butts up against some stubborn facts. In Yale’s first 100 years, religious dissenters faced discrimination for expressing their views. So much for free speech and tolerance.
Yale might simply be the amalgamation of its own history, real or imagined, as we remember it. It could be alumni, a collection of Dink Stovers and Cole Porters. It could be stories about the war years or the May Day rally of 1970. At first glance, this seems pretty compelling. Then again, how many Yalies know our history today? Our collective memory is pretty scant. Unless Yale is a flimsier institution than we’ve been led to believe, we must strike that off the list as well.
What about New Haven? Do College, Elm, Chapel, High and Park define the Yale experience? Are we just a school near Louis’ Lunch and J. Press? This would explain why Yale wouldn’t work in Singapore. But our city constantly changes. New shops pop up, and old ones close. If New Haven were Yale, then it would be in perpetual flux. Besides, tomorrow’s new Shake Shack and today’s Au Bon Pain could simply be built in Asia to recreate the University.
Sticklers will say Yale is its Corporation, the unbroken chain of people with whom the buck stops. That answer should also leave us unsatisfied. Our community seems more than just a legal entity of the State of Connecticut.
Maybe Yale is all of these things, at different times, to varying degrees. Maybe our school grows and transforms, defying absolute definition. Yet, if that were the case, why couldn’t we simply evolve ourselves into a new partnership with Singapore?
So what makes Yale unique? Based on my own predilections, I want to quote Margaret Thatcher, who once called America a unique nation, the only one founded on an idea. I want Yale, too, to be a place founded by an idea. Or two. Lux and Veritas.
I want to say that, in every age, we try to define what it is to walk in these principles. We know they exist, but no one agrees on exactly what they are. For Levin, the light is toleration. For me, lux is the difference between Right and Wrong. Only one of us is right.
Before we know if Singapore is right or wrong for Yale, we need to articulate who we are.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .