A university of less-than-liberal arts?
Should Yale University refuse to operate in Singapore where human rights and free expression face significant restrictions? Katie Engelhart weighs the arguments for and against.
Malay students in Singapore. Future Yale alumnae? (Photo by Reuters/Nicky Loh)
In March 2011, Yale University unveiled plans for a new college to be built in collaboration with the National University of Singapore (NUS). Yale-NUS College is to be Singapore’s first liberal arts university and will focus on teaching the “major works of Western and Asian civilizations in conversation with one another”. The college will be administered by Yale faculty but housed on NUS’s campus and funded by the city-state.
In recent months, the new venture has attracted criticism. Opponents accuse Yale of compromising its values and progressive ethos by setting up shop in Singapore, where “[the] government has long restricted the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly”. The New York Times confirms that “Like all university students in Singapore, those at Yale-NUS will not be permitted to take part in political protests or form groups supporting particular parties on campus.”
Some of the university’s most vociferous critics reside close to home. In April 2012, Yale College faculty passed a symbolic resolution expressing “concern” over the state of civil and political rights in Singapore. One Yale professor publicly accused the university of having “followed the money”. Another published a column in The Huffington Post alleging that Yale will receive a $300 million payout from Singapore for the deal. Yale University denies that it will profit from the venture.
An editorial in The Yale Daily News, an undergraduate student newspaper, charged: it is “disappointingly clear that freedom is an afterthought to Yale’s venture into Singapore.” Some of these critics call for the entire collaboration to be quashed.
Supporters, on the other hand, commend the venture for its pedagogical potential as a means of “reinventing the liberal arts from the ground up”. And while Yale officials acknowledge that they must respect the rights-restricted environment of their host country, they insist that—from a human rights perspective—some cross-cultural exchange is better than none. Academic freedom (to research and publish freely) will reportedly be protected.