An Equal Partnership? An April 5th, 2012 blog from The Blue Sweater

It’s ironic, that for an initiative which will not affect me at all (since I’ll have graduated by then, and I wouldn’t be involved even if I intend to stay to do graduate school), I have taken a great interest in the controversy that is the Yale-NUS College. Partly because how NUS is represented overseas is an area of interest for me, but mostly because the debate reveals many issues about relative conceptions of political culture, academic freedom, the corporatization of universities, and mentalities of Singaporeans and Americans towards each other.

Clearly, there is opposition from Yale towards the scheme. I previously posted a critique on a Yale Daily News article by Walker Vincoli, who argues that Singapore has no academic and political freedom. But his article was merely, in my opinion, to create “external opinion” (Vincoli is from UNC) regarding Singapore’s political culture, and by extension, opposition to Yale-NUS. (On a side note, it’s interesting, and indeed heartening to note that some of the critical comments to Vincoli’s article were from faculty staff in NUS who are also Yale alumni.)

The real driving force behind the campaign against Yale-NUS began with the faculty staff themselves. Jim Sleeper expresses in the Huffington Post his concern that:

“Levin [President of Yale] has committed Yale’s name to a venture that expands its educational mission in dubious new directions but sidelines its collegium”.

Michael Fischer, again in the Yale Daily, went so far as to state that “Yale-NUS is not a part of Yale” (emphasis mine), clearly trying to dissociate Yale from the entire enterprise. He emphasizes that Yale’s role was merely as consultants, and has no role in determining the teaching, curriculum and operations of the college.

Of course, there have been Yale members (and students) speaking in support of the initiative. They argue that allegations of Singapore lacking political and academic freedom are unfounded or, while conceding that there are limits in Singapore, argue instead that the initiative would be an opportunity to promote reform in Singapore’s political culture.

What about the opinions in Singapore?

Yale Daily News‘ coverage of Singaporean attitudes reflected what is stereotypically Singaporean attitudes about education, and the weight they place on brand-names, especially foreign. Which unfortunately is true to some extent.

In a series of interviews in Singapore, Yale Daily cites Ng Cher Pong, deputy secretary of MOE, who said that students seeking a broad course load won’t have to leave the country, and E-Lynn Yap, a student bound for Yale, that “there is such an ingrained tradition of the best students going overseas”, elaborating that between Yale-NUS and Yale proper, Singaporeans still tend to choose the latter.

In local media, local students have also critiqued university policy. Koh Choon Kwee in a Today commentary, cited the example of a dialogue session of NUS students with the Provost, in which a student raised the question of whether NUS was “perpetuating the worship of branding Ivy Leagues by pursuing the YNC”. (“They change, we change”, Today, 15 September 2011, p. 14.)

Having laid the context of this controversy, what are we to make of all these? I identify three main issues:

I. Varsity Politics: Corporatization vs. Academic Tradition

The opposition from Yale staff reflect the dynamics of varsity politics within Yale. Sleeper quotes an unnamed professor who said in a closed-door meeting with Levin that:

“Yale is really what we we do – our research, teaching and conferences… the faculty are the collegium – a company of scholars that, to do its work well, has to stand somewhat apart from both markets and states.”

This reveals that there is a divide between the university administration and the collegium who hold different views about the direction Yale is supposed to take and the principles that it represented and should represent.

In the context of globalization, a tension between academic ideals and financial viability has emerged within universities. In seeking collaboration with NUS,  the Yale administration sees an opportunity to promote itself to a wider community of students internationally, which could translate into benefits for Yale in the long-run, say, a pool of potential graduate students, etc. It could also be a platform to try out new pedagogical methods and research programs. In addition, given the fact that other universities in the US have partnerships with other universities in Asia, the Yale administration sees a potential disadvantage if it does not engage as well.

On the other hand, the Yale collegium (as they call themselves collectively), base Yale’s identity in terms of its commitment to liberalism and academic freedom. It is as a matter of principle that Yale does not collaborate with a country they consider to be disregarding of academic and political freedom. By collaborating, they fear that Yale’s commitment to such liberalism would be diluted or masked by the political restraints in Singapore, thereby contradicting Yale’s tradition for, quoting Fischer, bringing “light and truth in a world often confused by darkness and deceit”. (“light and truth” being, I found out, Yale’s motto).

II. A Reflection of American Foreign Policy

The controversy also reveals an interesting aspect of American political attitudes.

First, it reflects American strategies for promoting political freedom. Consider the US policy towards authoritarian regimes: Sanctions. Diplomatic isolation. Limited engagement. Such attitudes is, as we can observe, paralleled in their attitude towards NUS, a part of “authoritarian” Singapore.The articles cited above in this post call for the same policy that US diplomats have adopted towards dictatorships:

Disassociate oneself from NUS. Punish NUS (and by extension Singapore) by backing out of the deal, and only re-engage when there are substantial political/academic reforms.

Which in turn also betray attitudes of American exceptionalism, the idea that the US political architecture is the model for all countries to follow, the “gold standard” of political freedom and civil liberty.

I am no supporter of “Asian Values”, but I do believe that respect for the subtleties in relative political cultures, respecting difference and promoting engagement is far more helpful in promoting change.

The controversy is not just an academic one, it has a very clear political dimension. Which is something that perhaps both the Yale and NUS administrations were unaware of when they made the agreement to collaborate. Or perhaps it’s precisely because the former was aware that it went ahead without the consultation of the collegium, leading to the dispute we witness now.

The next issue is control. Interestingly, Yale has a collaboration with – wait for it – Peking University. China, a society far more closed and authoritarian than Singapore is, held to a different standard. Or is it? Yale Daily justifies the initiative in China by saying that “its programs in China, over which we exercise considerable control, have strengthened Yale’s educational offerings, not to mention its brand”. What this reveals about American policy is twofold. The first is, as I have stated from the outset, is control. American control, okay. Singaporean control, questionable. This is parallel in any coalition operation in American military history: the US has control. Putting the point of relative power aside, the point remains that a belief is held that American involvement necessitates American influence, if not leadership.

The second is, of course, the doubt whether all they are trying to do is to protect their reputation. Apparently their name matters as much to them as it does to us.

III. Reputation

The title of this post raises a query: is the Yale-NUS collaboration an equal partnership? To make an assessment, we can start by looking at a similar collaboration, the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. In Choon Hwee’s article, the Provost explained that Duke University had experimented with new teaching methods which were highly successful and re-imported back to the home university.

Of course, one can question the utility of comparing the two collaborations, since they cover different disciplines and that the context in which they emerged is perhaps different as well.

But the point I want to drive at is the interest NUS takes in pursuing partnerships. Duke-NUS and Yale-NUS are of course some of the higher-profile partnerships. But NUS also has joint-degree and joint-PhD programmes with reputable universities, not to mention the ad-hoc partnerships.

I’m not questioning the value of these partnerships, but like many students, I’m always puzzled by the paradox of how NUS aims to be a leading university by being a sidekick. Perhaps I’m grossly wrong (and I think I am), but what of leading an initiative by ourselves?

But I have to be fair to NUS, for it’s situated in an environment that compels it to pursue such partnerships with an activism unseen in other universities in the region. While other premier universities in the region, such as those of the Philippines (as I was told by my girlfriend) cater to the political, economic and social elite within the country, Singapore has the tradition instead of sending its own promising and – I hate to use this word – elite students overseas. This promotes the idea that foreign is better (why else would the best and brightest go there), and NUS has to present itself as a comparable equal.

Which is why in other countries, the choice of school the children of politicians make matter, because it’s a political issue. Politicians have to instill public confidence in their home universities, and they do so by putting a stake in it – their children. But in the case of Singapore, as long as our political and social elite perpetuate the practice of privileging overseas universities, it will be difficult to break out of this mentality.

On the other side of this controversy, Yale too is concerned about its reputation, as previously mentioned. But I wonder how much it betrays of a sense of superiority, even self-righteousness, the mentality that NUS is beneath them, not just in terms of the academic freedom, but even in the academic standards. Consider the Yale Daily’s editorial on how Singapore suppresses scholarship by self-censorship, if not by law. That by extension, clearly casts doubt on academic standards in Singapore.

To conclude what has to be one of my longest posts, I do not deny that there are problems in Singapore. I also do not have a stake in the Yale-NUS collaboration. But as a student, and as a Singaporean, some awareness of the political dimensions of this controversy is certainly helpful in helping us in our self-reflection, as well as to look at the other side more critically. It is my opinion that if Yale is sincere about its academic tradition, it should be promoting it, even if it means creating an oasis of freedom in an authoritarian desert, for that oasis will sustain life for miles and miles beyond.

References:

Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, “In Singapore, liberal arts enter uncharted territory”, Yale Daily News, 28 March 2012. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/mar/28/liberal-arts-enter-uncharted-territory/ (accessed 5 April 2012).

Jim Sleeper, “How Yale’s Singapore Venture Imperils Liberal Education”, The Huffington Post, 16 March 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-sleeper/how-yales-singapore-ventu_b_1352729.html (accessed 5 April 2012).

Koh Choon Hwee, “They change, we change”, Today, 15 September 2011, p. 14.

Michael Fischer, “Yale-NUS is not Yale”, Yale Daily News, 23 March 2012. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/mar/23/fischer-yale-nus-is-not-yale/ (accessed 5 April 2012).

“New’s View: Keep Yale out of Singapore”, Yale Daily News, 11 February 2011. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/feb/11/keep-yale-out-of-singapore/ (accessed 5 April 2012).

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