What’s at stake at Yale-NUS: a re-post of Seyla Benhabib’s April 4th, 2012 piece in the Yale Daily News

At its monthly meeting tomorrow, the Yale College faculty will debate and probably vote on a resolution that means a lot more for the future of Yale University than its wording alone suggests. I introduced the resolution concerning the planned Yale-NUS College in Singapore to express faculty dissatisfaction not only with Yale’s collaboration with a government that severely constricts human rights, civil liberties and academic freedom but also with the administration’s decision-making process about curricular and pedagogical matters that should have been decided by a vote of the Yale faculty — if indeed Yale’s name is to be attached to the college in Singapore at all.

While the body of a university must be administered by a corporation, its living constitution — some would say its soul — flourishes only in its scholars’ and students’ freedom to follow reason and open inquiry in directions that are not foreclosed by government or market pressures. Yet the Yale faculty has slowly awakened to the virtual fait accomplit of a new college that will be in part governed and fully funded by Singapore and its National University. Yale’s collaboration in this venture was conceived partly by some members of the Yale Corporation who have also served on the Government of Singapore’s investment corporation. While the new college will not technically grant Yale degrees, its graduates will be fully integrated into the Yale Alumni Association Network.

My resolution addresses explicitly only one dimension of these strange and troubling arrangements. It reads:

“We, the Yale College Faculty, express our concern regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore, host of the proposed Yale-National University of Singapore College.

“We urge Yale-NUS to respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers; to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.

“These ideals lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens, and they ought not to be compromised in any dealings or negotiations with the Singaporean authorities.”

At Thursday’s faculty meeting, amendments may be introduced with the intent to get the Yale faculty on record supporting the establishment of Yale-NUS, even though the faculty never formally debated or voted on the project before it was signed and sealed. But any such support would require a new resolution and cannot be adopted before the full terms of the agreement between the Yale Corporation, the Government of Singapore and the NUS administration are made public. How can we be asked to endorse an arrangement the terms of which have not been disclosed?

Furthermore, it is only in ad hoc fashion that the cooperation expected of the Yale-New Haven faculty with Yale-NUS comes to light: We are expected to host and train the new faculty members of Yale-NUS here in New Haven as early as this fall, the president of Yale-NUS writes that classrooms will be equipped for teleconferencing with classes that we teach in New Haven, and the first students admitted by Yale-NUS will come to New Haven in summer 2013 and attend our classes, where special focus will be placed on encouraging them to participate freely and learn to speak their minds. When have we been asked whether or not we agree with all this?

The argument by Yale-NUS defenders that puzzles me most is that we in New Haven live in departmental silos, while Yale-NUS will set a dazzling example of the interdisciplinary future of liberal arts for us here in the United States. Leaving aside this venture’s naïve missionary sentiment, one must ask: Do we need to go to Singapore to advance interdisciplinarity and a revival of the liberal arts?

I understand well the challenges of achieving a genuine interdisciplinarity. A University-wide conversation about such programs would be welcome. But where has that discussion been? What exactly have been the obstacles to holding it here in New Haven?

We, the faculty of Yale College, have the responsibility and obligation to deliberate and vote on these arrangements. Nothing less than our honor and judgment is at stake.

Seyla Benhabib is Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy.

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