Two weeks after the decision to annul a Yale-NUS program about dissent drew controversy last fall, Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis published a report clarifying that the cancellation was made without government interference. At the time, the former president of Yale-NUS responded to concerns about the lack of academic freedom at Yale’s sister college.
But recently published notes from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meetings last fall reveal continued backlash against conclusions Lewis drew in the report. In an October FAS Senate meeting, many senators voiced concerns about the accuracy and fairness of Lewis’ investigation. On Dec. 10, the Senate approved a two-page resolution urging Yale to further incorporate its input on how Yale should handle similar events involving free speech and academic freedom.
“We recommend that President Salovey, in consultation with the Senate, appoint an ad hoc committee with faculty representatives from both Yale and Yale-NUS to develop and recommend procedures and criteria for determining how, and if, the University should publicly respond to such events,” the resolution stated.
The Yale-NUS course titled “Dialogue and Dissent” was abruptly canceled last fall, just weeks prior to its first day. According to its syllabus, the course was designed to examine political, social and ethical issues of dissent by hosting activists like human rights defender Jolovan Wham, artist Priyageetha Dia and filmmaker Daniel Hui. Students in the course were to design protest signs and carry them around Hong Lim Park to simulate activism.
According to Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong, the school called off the program because “the planned schedule of activities included elements that could subject students to the risk of breaking the law, and incurring legal liabilities.” Nine of the 16 students in the course who were not Singaporean nationals could risk arrest for participating, Tan explained. Later in his report, Lewis said the cancellation was largely due to administrative errors, legal liabilities and a lack of “academic rigor.”
“[The decision] did not, in my view and the view of all the participants I met, infringe on the academic freedom of the proposed instructor or of anyone at the College,” Lewis wrote.
But according to minutes from FAS Senate’s October meeting, several faculty members argued that Lewis’ position as the first president of Yale-NUS made it almost impossible for the report to be truly objective. For her part, history of art professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan said Lewis’ report could not be considered an independent review of the situation. She called for an external review and suggested that the course was canceled because of political pressure, per the minutes. Yiengpruksawan did not respond to the News’ requests for comment.
According to the minutes, the senators drew their information from Lewis’ report, along with 400 pages of other documents surrounding the cancellation. Among them was a 23-page independent analysis of Lewis’ report, penned by Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal. It remains unclear why Nehal decided to conduct his own investigation. In the report, Nehal states that it would be “entirely defensible” to view the class cancellation as a violation of “academic freedom and open inquiry,” based on publicly available information.
“There is a fair basis, given the matters set out in this analysis, to question Lewis’ conclusion that academic freedom or open inquiry were not violated,” Nehal wrote. “The evidence raises justifiable doubts whether there were sufficiently weighty academic or legal reasons to cancel the program … [and] the evidence shows that the likely dominant factor behind the cancellation was the ‘political nature of the program.’”
Nehal could not be reached for comment. According to his report, he has not had contact with the course instructor and playwright Alfian bin Sa’at.
In an email to the News, Lewis defended his investigation of the cancellation and said Nehal’s conclusions are misleading.
“I have great respect for Harpreet Singh Nehal,” he wrote in an email to the News, “but his report was based on very incomplete information and contains a number of errors due to his lack of familiarity with the situation.”
Still, according to the minutes, FAS Senate Chair John Geanakoplos told senators that statements from critics point out that the course had already been altered to eliminate legal liability prior to the cancellation. These critics claimed that Yale-NUS could have simply postponed the course.
Geanakoplos later told the News that the Senate’s discussions concluded without faculty members agreeing to endorse Lewis’ report. They “did not have enough information to agree” whether the course lacked academic rigor, Geanakoplos explained. The body, he wrote, would rather have wanted the course postponed.
Contrary to several faculty members’ concerns, FAS senators Charles Schmuttenmaer and Shiri Goren endorsed Lewis’ report. Both senators sit on the standing committee of Yale faculty on Yale-NUS. Schmuttenmaer declined to comment for the story, while Goren did not respond to the News’ inquiries.
In an email statement to the News, Lewis said he does not believe that there is “much dispute about the events” surrounding the cancellation.
“I think all parties are more concerned about making sure that such challenges are handled effectively in the future, and that’s what I’m focusing on now,” Lewis said.
Moving forward, the FAS Senate wants a more active role in the University’s decisions — especially when it deals with free speech and academic independence. The December resolution seeks to give the Senate more of a say in how future events similar to the cancellation will be handled. Specifically, the resolution calls for a committee to advise University administrators on such matters. That group should include representatives from the Yale-NUS faculty advisory committee and the FAS Senate, the resolution stated. The group’s input, the resolution states, would “both improve and legitimate presidential decision-making.”
According to Geanakoplos, the University is in the process of appointing the committee that his team recommended.
“I think the most important thing to say about Yale-NUS is that the Yale FAS Senate stands ready to defend freedom of expression, especially on campus,” he wrote in his statement, quoting from the resolution.
The FAS Senate’s next meeting is slated for Feb. 20.
Matt Kristoffersen | firstname.lastname@example.org