It has been slightly over a year since the grand opening of the Yale-National University Singapore campus. In the past few weeks, the institution has revealed what many critics already knew: Yale-NUS, by virtue of operating in an authoritarian country, will have a censored curriculum. On Sept. 19, the News reported that the Yale-NUS administration consulted with the Singaporean Media Development Authority before moving ahead with plans to screen a documentary, “To Singapore, with Love,” plans that were ultimately quashed because the filmmaker did not give her permission. The incident reaffirmed my skepticism that the singular culture and liberal arts experience of Yale can’t be exported abroad.
Yale’s decision to open an affiliate in Singapore has been controversial from the outset. In a 2012 article published in the Daily Beast, Alex Klein ’12 condemned the University for “climb[ing] into bed with one of southeast Asia’s most despotic governments.” While Klein’s opposition stems from his aversion to illiberal regimes, I would go even further and say it flies in the face of Yale’s distinguished history of respecting and engaging with on-campus dissent.
In 1975, following a decade of social upheaval and Vietnam draft protests, then-Yale president Kingman Brewster called upon the preeminent historian C. Vann Woodward to spearhead a committee to examine the role of free speech on Yale’s campus. In the report, the committee called upon the University to “protect [Yale affiliates’] right to free expression.” Furthermore, Woodward and his fellow authors urged administrators to encourage dissent and free speech on campus.
The very fact that Yale was willing to publish an official report endorsing free speech at a time of student radicalism is indicative of how much the administration has traditionally valued student opinion. Unlike his counterparts at Yale’s peer schools, Brewster extended a hand and an ear to Yalies of the rebellious sixties. Brewster dismissed the R.O.T.C. program during the Vietnam era and offered Old Campus housing to local protesters. What made Brewster a unique and influential leader was not that he himself was an anti-authoritarian, but rather he introduced aspects of student radicalism into administrative policy.
Since the 1970s, there’s been a precipitous decline in student activism. In an age when future employers can Google your entire history, today’s students have swapped concerns for civil rights for a step ahead in the professional world. Today’s students are more in lock step with administrators than the generation of Woodstock could ever imagine.
Still, Yale-NUS is one issue where students and faculty diverge from the Yale Corporation and Woodbridge Hall. And we disagree with our leaders in part because we know that even if we’re a generation that places more faith in institutions, it is possible that we might occupy Woodbridge Hall or visibly protest unpopular policies. And we fear that Yale-NUS’s students will never enjoy the same ability to challenge the administration or the government on issues they feel strongly about. Although Yale-NUS may be globally representative insofar as demographics, I fear this diversity will never make its voice heard for fear of administrative backlash
Every student who thumbs through the bluebook will read this phrase: “the exercise of curiosity and an opportunity for discovery of new interests and abilities.” It embodies the raison d’être of Yale’s liberal-arts education. And it’s an opportunity that will categorically be denied to those who study at Yale-NUS. The Singaporean history of prohibiting “anything that exacerbates racial or religious tensions,” in the words of a president of another university in Singapore, will render the purpose of Yale’s scholastic tradition virtually ineffectual.
The design of the Yale-NUS curriculum, according to the president of Yale-NUS — Pericles Lewis — aims to mix the precepts of Western and Eastern education. What the University envisions is a program that will open new horizons with the pan-hemispheric comparisons of texts, ancient and modern. In reality, thought at the institution will be at the mercy of what the Singaporean bureaucracy permits.
Those two criticisms, social and curricular, debase the fundamentals of the University. But I also have a more abstract opposition. I sense that this project derives from a paternalistic vision of Yale’s educational model. The Yale experience is unique and valuable, but it is also a practice that, stripped of its home in New Haven, is weaker. Yale’s tradition is not an object to be packaged and shipped across the Pacific. An imitation of the Yale atmosphere is incomplete without its New England environs, the brisk autumnal winds or the Gothic spires. In one sense, it’s admirable that the Yale Corporation envisions a global horizon for its higher education expertise; there are so many deserving students who don’t have the chance to study here. There are only so many spots on Yale’s campus. It’s why I support expanding the student body at home with the new residential colleges. But even if Yale-NUS were made not to build Yale’s brand name but to gift more students a Yale education, it’s a well-intentioned but flawed design. Some things are better staying at home.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Oct. 11
A previous version of this column misstated the reasons that the film, “To Singapore, with Love,” was not shown at Yale-NUS. It also included inaccurate statements about books available at Yale-NUS. The News regrets publishing incomplete information about this issue.