Yale’s “grand strategy” of recent years seems to be imploding on both sides of the world.
On Aug. 26, the world learned that Yale-NUS College in Singapore was being abolished. Yale University President Peter Salovey’s announcement was titled “On the Planned Closing of Yale-NUS College in 2025.” How long that “planning” had been going on is unclear. The news came as a complete shock and left many “flabbergasted.” The students and faculty of Yale-NUS are in disarray, parents complain of a “bait and switch.” The future of the “New College” to replace Yale-NUS is entirely murky. A change.org petition protesting the decision has gathered almost 15,000 signatures as of now.
No amount of Orwellian Newspeak can disguise this closure as a “merger.” It is, in effect, a hostile takeover, by the authoritarian Singapore state, of a supposedly joint project: Yale-NUS College. The Yale name is being unceremoniously returned to New Haven, the worse for wear. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the closure of Yale-NUS “offers lessons to colleges seeking global re-engagement.” But what lessons, and how will they be learned?
Then, the New York Times reported Sept. 30 as front-page news the resignation of professor Beverly Gage as chair of Yale’s “Grand Strategy” program, under pressure from the administration to accept an outside “board” of right-wing figures including Henry Kissinger.
Within a month, two “grand strategies” seemed to have fallen in on themselves in ways that should be deeply embarrassing to the Yale administration. Peter Salovey and vice president “for global strategy” Pericles Lewis should both resign.
On Sept. 13, I wrote to the Yale faculty Senate to propose two things in regards to Singapore:
- That the Senate adopt a resolution expressing, at a minimum, “concern” about the closing of Yale-NUS and its consequences. Anything to break the “deafening silence” of Yale. (I take that phrase from a professor at Yale-NUS who wrote to me after my letter was published in the YDN.)
- That the Senate name a select committee of both senators and non-senators from the faculty for the purpose of an inquiry into the Yale-NUS project, its history, its unfolding and its closing. Neither a witch-hunt nor a whitewash, such an inquiry should be done in a spirit of collegial fact-finding, willingness to learn, sincere reflection and transparency.
After several rounds of back-and-forth correspondence, I received a definitive refusal of both requests from professor Valerie Horsley, chair of the Senate. She wrote that “this issue does not warrant our efforts this year.” And she made this other astonishing statement: “no further action of the FAS Senate would be beneficial to identifying a ‘lesson learned’ or how to improve if such a venture is attempted by Yale in the future.” After more than 10 years of Yale’s investment, of unaccounted human and material resources, ending in a sudden collapse, does Yale really have nothing to learn? Faced with the administration’s assurances that this was all Singapore’s doing, and that Yale can do nothing about it, the Senate goes limp.
Yet, in reaction to the Grand Strategy scandal, the Senate, within hours, leaps into action. “The Senate is highly concerned,” Horsley tells the News, and “will investigate.” Why the disparity in the responses to these two simultaneous fiascos? Could it be that Yale-NUS, though far larger in scope, is out of sight, out of mind and inconvenient for many members of the Senate to contemplate?
The Senate’s reasons for refusing (in what they call a “closed full” meeting) both of my proposals, as reported to me, are not sound. I have understood those reasons to be (with my responses indented):
- Singapore is about Yale’s past, not its present or future; the Senate needs to focus on “forward-looking” issues.
- The crisis in Singapore is unfolding at this moment. It has real victims: the students, alumni and faculty of Yale-NUS. Yale resources and the Yale name remain invested in Singapore. This “fiasco” will not end until 2025.
- An inquiry into Yale-NUS would be controversial and “divisive.”
- The Senate was created in order to examine and debate, but certainly not suppress controversies among faculty. Ironically, the logic of the PAP state in Singapore is precisely to insist on “consensus” and to suppress dissent.
- An inquiry would be “futile” because the decision made by Singapore was unilateral; Yale can do nothing.
- The goal here is not to change Singapore’s decision, which would presumably be impossible. But with a resolution, Yale might at least be heard, and with an inquiry, Yale might learn from this affair.
- There is not enough time.
- Adopting a resolution would take very little time.
- My proposal for a long-term inquiry should start quickly, while memories are fresh, but move deliberately over an entire year or perhaps even two. This would be appropriate considering the unprecedented nature, the scale and the duration of Yale’s involvement in the project.
- Where did the Senate suddenly find time for an inquiry about “Grand Strategy,” pray tell? Singapore represents a vastly more ambitious investment of Yale’s time and resources; an inquiry would thus seem to merit at least equal time. (Grand Strategy, according to the New York Times, brings in each year “a select group of about two dozen students.”)
To examine the institutional context in a clear light: Would the discussion and inquiry be embarrassing? Controversial? Perhaps so: the power structure and cast of characters at Yale remain virtually unchanged since 2011. Peter Salovey replaced Richard Levin as president; those who were among the leaders of the Singapore project occupy new positions of privilege back in New Haven, most notably the “vice president for global strategy” (a position that never existed before), Pericles Lewis. Bryan Garsten, an architect of the Yale-NUS curriculum, is now chair of the Humanities program. Jeremiah Quinlan, after a stint as the “inaugural dean of admissions and financial aid for Yale-NUS College” returned to New Haven and was promoted to dean of undergraduate admissions. And of course Charles Bailyn is head of Benjamin Franklin College. Yale has been, however inadvertently, reproducing old colonial patterns, whereby service in the colony has been a stepping-stone for advancement in the home country.
Retired Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper calls the enterprise “a compact built on evangelical arrogance and materialist blundering.”
Several members of the current Senate were supporters of the Singapore project, “consultants,” boosters or collaborators. No one who publicly dissented is now a senator. Others were not at Yale when the project was launched, and perhaps do not feel concerned. Is this why the Senate is so resistant to doing the right thing?
While the current and past students of Yale-NUS are the obvious victims of this closure, and while the government of Singapore and the NUS are reportedly the sole authors of the decision, Yale University bears a heavy, ongoing burden of responsibility. The founding, organization, administration and prestige of Yale-NUS were principally driven by Yale. The “inaugural” president and three out of five Deans of the Faculty at Yale-NUS were and remain tenured professors at Yale. Dozens of Yale faculty have contributed to the project in various capacities that have not been accounted for.
At the beginning, the strong, “evangelical” suggestion, with undertones of missionary zeal, was that the Yale-NUS project would propagate the liberal arts in Singapore and renew them in New Haven and perhaps the wider world. But there was a problem: most of those involved in the planning had little international experience or expertise. They unwittingly reproduced the tropes of colonialism, claiming to be writing the liberal arts onto “a clean slate.” The contract governing the arrangement has never been made public.
Those who pushed back against the project at the time were called — by Charles Bailyn, the “inaugural dean” of Yale-NUS — “foolish.” Then-University President Levin called dissent on the subject “unbecoming.”
Now, Yale-NUS College is being called a “profligate bonfire of time, money and human capital.” Why did the project burst into flames so quickly?
Since the shocking announcement of the closing, Yale has had little to say. Hapless and “bittersweet” (Lewis), Yale administrators seem determined now to just “offer [their] best wishes” (Salovey), turn their backs and walk away. The Senate now joins the administration in that ostrich-like posture. The most apposite quotation describing Yale’s institutional stance right now may be this, from The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
Is it “foolish” or “unbecoming” to ask Yale to be better than Tom and Daisy?
CHRISTOPHER L. MILLER is the Frederick Clifford Ford Professor of African American Studies and French, Emeritus. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction 10/4: The letter mistakenly included that all three Yale-NUS deans are tenured professors at Yale. In reality, three of the five Deans of the Faculty are tenured professors at Yale. Also, the letter wrote that Charles Bailyn was Dean of Benjamin Franklin College. He is the college’s head. The letter has been updated to reflect these changes.