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.

The case

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.

Author opinion

Should a university refuse to operate in a foreign environment that does not guarantee the same basic level of human rights that its own citizens enjoy? This issue extends far beyond Yale. As some commentators have pointed out, a number of western universities operate satellite colleges in countries with less-than-satisfactory human rights records. My alma mater Cornell has a campus in Qatar, which has largely escaped the kind of scrutiny applied to Yale-NUS. Moreover, the questions posed above can be applied beyond the walls of academia. Recall the backlash surrounding Twitter’s plan to censor tweets on a country-by-country basis to conform with varying free speech laws.

I am sympathetic to opponents' claims, which are aptly summed up in an article by Yale professor Christopher L. Miller in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As Miller rightly points out, this is a question of principle; discussion of whether or not Singapore will go so far as to curtail the rights of Yale-NUS students is secondary. Particularly moving is Miller’s acknowledgement that, as a gay man, his own lifestyle and identity would land him at the pointed end of Singaporean law.

And yet on balance, I support Yale University’s decision to launch Yale-NUS. Some engagement with Singaporean students and the city-state itself, however limited, is indeed better than none. Educational exchanges have long been conduits for cultural exchange. Isolation has not. And Miller’s lamentation that Yale did not instead open a campus in a city like Paris seems out of touch.

As Yale University’s president Richard Levin explained: “We undertook this partnership to advance in Asia both the development of liberal arts curriculum and pedagogy encouraging critical inquiry. These in themselves are objectives worthy of a great American institution.”

- Katie Engelhart

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Comments (1)

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  1. Here’s the cartoon I did on Yale in Singapore et al:

    G. Tod Slone, Ed.
    The American Dissident

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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