Yale-NUS saga: ‘Reality is always more complex’

But US varsity head says tie-up has solid support of governing body

Yale University President Richard Levin had his own learning moment recently.

In an interview with The Sunday Times at its campus in New Haven, Connecticut, he says more could have been done to avoid the faculty fracas over the Yale-National University of Singapore College last month.

The university faculty had voted 100 to 69 to pass a resolution expressing ‘concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore’.

It also called on the planned Yale-NUS College to uphold principles of ‘non-discrimination for all… civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society’.

Although university officials moved swiftly to give the assurance that the resolution would not derail work to set up the Yale-NUS College next year, the resolution did incense many in Singapore who saw it as belittling Singapore’s achievements as a nation.

Some hit back to say the incident showed up the cultural arrogance of Americans seeking to enforce their own political standards and values on other nations.

Professor Levin, who started his academic career as a professor in Yale after completing his PhD in economics there in 1974, said plainly that the resolution, especially the first part, was ‘objectionable’ and smacked of ‘moral superiority’.

He had also opposed it on the grounds that it did not capture the mutual respect that has characterised the Yale-NUS collaboration from the beginning.

He revealed that he had proposed an amendment to delete the first sentence expressing concern about political and civil rights in Singapore, but it was defeated narrowly in a vote.

But he noted that the main players in the debate were the same people making the same points – a reference to the small group of academics who raised the issue of academic freedom in September 2010, when officials first announced the project.

Two town-hall meetings held then for faculty to weigh in on the project were poorly attended.

‘The detractors found little support at that time, but for whatever reasons, there are more people who have come up to support them now,’ said Prof Levin.

Asked if faculty discontent could have intensified due to the other disputes over Yale budget cuts and top-down decision-making, he conceded that ‘a number of people could have supported this resolution out of a general sense of unhappiness’.

In retrospect, more could have been done to get more faculty familiar and involved in the Singapore project.

‘We have had something upwards of 60 members of the faculty involved in planning and discussion of the curriculum since we started work more than two years ago,’ he said. ‘So there already is a substantial number of people who are familiar with the project, and many, if not most, are enthusiastic about that. So we need to widen the circle and get more of them to see that this is something worthwhile.’

For one thing, he hoped more Yale faculty would get to visit Singapore.

‘Nothing like going anywhere, whether it is to Singapore or China,’ he said. ‘It is easy to sit here and read things that may have a particular political point of view, written from a certain perspective and find it persuasive.

‘Reality is always more complex than simple ideologies’.

Still, he noted, robust debate and exchanges are part of everyday life in American university campuses.

‘Lively debate and discussion are a feature of American academic life. Constantly questioning the university’s values and programmes is a persistent feature of our environment.’

‘In fact, it is not unlike the pedagogical approach that Yale faculty take with their students and hope to do at Yale-NUS.’

‘We want to train students to think independently, frame their own views, and argue and defend them,’ he said.

He emphasised that Singaporeans should not read the resolution as a vote against the Yale-NUS liberal arts college, which is preparing to open next year and has begun recruiting faculty and students.

He pointed out that the Singapore project has the solid support of the Yale Corporation, the governing body of the university, and some 50 to 60 faculty involved in the set-up of the college.

What was puzzling, however, was that some of the faculty involved in the Singapore project had also voted for the resolution.

But Prof Levin said: ‘At the end of the debate, at least two faculty members spoke to make completely clear that they supported the project but voted for the resolution. It would be wrong to interpret this as a vote against the project. It was a vote about certain principles that many of Yale faculty care deeply about.’

The resolution left some in Singapore questioning Yale’s commitment to the project with NUS and what would happen in case of a leadership change at Yale.

Still fresh in many minds is what happened in 2007 with the University of New South Wales. The Australian university had arrived in Singapore to set up a campus for up to 15,000 students but did an about-turn and pulled out just months after a new vice-chancellor took over.

Prof Levin said Yale’s commitment extended beyond him to the rest of the university’s leadership team, including the provost and deans.

More importantly, he added, its governing board was unanimously in support of the initiative – ‘not in a soft way… they are firmly committed’.

The 19-member Yale Corporation, which includes big names like CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria, venture capital firm Sutter Hill Ventures managing director Leonard Baker, and PepsiCo chief executive Indra Nooyi, has held numerous discussions especially on the concerns raised by the faculty, including the issue of academic freedom.

‘The board is quite convinced that this is a worthwhile endeavour and something that it will remain committed to long after I am gone,’ he said.

He explained why the Singapore project was a worthy endeavour for the 300-year-old institution that was instrumental in shaping liberal arts education in the United States.

First off, he shot down the suggestion by some dissenting faculty that Yale could have gone it alone and set up a satellite campus in Asia. That way, it could pull out easily if the project threatened the university’s reputation.

Prof Levin believes firmly that two is better than one.

‘When two great institutions from two different cultures collaborate, there is more to be learnt and something creative is likely to emerge,’ he said.

He is excited by the model of education proposed for the new college, which will start classes in August next year.

The novel curriculum will synthesise Western and Asian perspectives and require students to explore their similarities and differences.

Students will live together in three residential colleges which will knit together academic, intellectual, social, athletic and artistic life.

‘This could be a very rich way to become educated,’ he said.

He stressed that this was all the more necessary in today’s globalised world.

‘In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a liberal arts education is more indispensable than ever to prepare students to negotiate these cultural differences.’

As for what is at stake for Yale, he said: ‘By collaborating on an entirely new liberal arts institution for an emergent Asia, Yale could influence the course of 21st century education as profoundly as it shaped higher education in the US in the 19th century.’

Prof Levin on why Yale chose to partner a university in Singapore

‘We chose Singapore for several reasons – it is very keen on developing first-class education and it is putting resources behind it.

It is not just this college. It is also building outstanding university programmes at NUS, NTU and SMU.

There is a real commitment to being a major force in education in Asia.

Singapore is also at the crossroads between China and India, and close to South-east Asia; in a way, in an ideal location for drawing students from the whole region. You will get a real mix of perspectives.

If one were to go to China, it would have a larger Chinese experience. Similarly, if we were to go to India.’

On agreeing to disagree

‘People can have strong viewpoints but we all get along. The culture is such that it’s OK to disagree.

And it’s good to have more debate, more conversations.

The problems of the university, like the problems of the world, are only more likely to be solved by conversation than not.

Many great ideas are controversial and this is a great idea.’

On faculty recruitment for Yale-NUS College

‘We are doing well in terms of attracting really impressive people from around the world.

We have had over 2,000 applicants and made over 30 offers.

We will shortly be releasing who’s who in this list. We have some really impressive people from around the world.

Roughly half are from the US, a quarter from Singapore, another quarter from around the world.’

Why did Yale want to do this, despite the difficulties involved?

‘It’s an opportunity to be part of a historically, important innovation in education. We hope to bring certain aspects of the American tradition of undergrad education, modifying and adapting them to an Asian context.

It’s an ambitious project. What is at stake for Yale is an opportunity to do something really important in the world of global higher education.’

By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 6 May 2012
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