Opinion

On Yale and Yale-NUS: Why Yale Won’t Save Us

Story by| Michael Sagna, Staff Editor

Photo by| Avani Adhikari

Last year marked a turning point in the history of Yale-NUS. For a moment, the college collectively held its breath; the feared moment had finally arrived. We thought that the Singaporean government had covertly intervened in our academic endeavours, due to the cancellation of the week 7 project “Dissent and Resistance”. What actually happened, in the end, was closer to intervention from Yale than it was from the government. 

For some context, last academic year this experiential learning workshop, otherwise known as a week seven project, was cancelled. There was initially much speculation as to why it never went ahead— many of us initially assumed that the government had a hand in preventing the project from going ahead due to its controversial content, but it emerged that the college had cancelled it due to planning issues.

This was certainly a defining moment in our young college’s history, especially in terms of its relationship with our American founding institution. To Yale University, it seemed that assurances from our college’s most senior faculty were not enough to ensure their confidence in our autonomy. Yale even went as far as sending their own vice president to conduct an independent review as to why the course had been cancelled, with which the Yale-NUS administration was fully expected to comply. 

Don’t get me wrong – it is certainly important to ensure the academic autonomy of Yale-NUS. Maybe I could have believed that this investigation had been in our college’s genuine interest if it had not occurred within the context of Yale faculty repeatedly attacking our college’s establishment in Singapore. Against this backdrop, however, the investigation seems to be more about Yale being worried about protecting its brand name, than about care for our college’s students.

Thinking about the situation made me question not only what Yale does for us, but also how Yale thinks of our relationship to them. In Singapore at least, Yale-NUS is often assumed to be much more similar to and strongly associated with Yale than it is NUS, due to the emphasis on the Yale brand in the college’s marketing. Many students even feel that interaction with NUS is missing to the point that the latter half of our name is nominal, as exemplified in an Octant article written a couple of years back. 

But how does our founding institution perceive us? As an editor for The Octant, I strongly believe that a school’s newspaper gives a good insight into the general opinions of the college community. 

A quick search through the Yale Daily News’ website about Yale-NUS returns a range of pieces covering a lot of mundane occurrences on our campus. However, the opinions about our college tend to be generally negative, especially in terms of last year’s week seven cancellation.

Professors in particular seemed to be rather concerned about issues of academic freedoms, questioning the choice of the university’s administration in terms of location for a Yale offshoot college.

As reported in an article in Yale Daily News, in response to the week seven project being cancelled, Mark Oppenheimer, Lecturer of English at Yale, spoke about how he had “thought that Yale-NUS ‘is a terrible idea for a decade now”, arguing that “the [Singaporean] government’s authoritarian tendencies could tarnish Yale and its professors’ reputations”.

This is quite clearly an inappropriate argument to make. The professor’s focus shouldn’t be on the governmental structure, but rather on whether or not these “authoritarian tendencies” are manifested in the academic sphere. Let us not forget that the ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal arts’ alludes not to governmental structure, but to the academic freedom afforded to students in the educational institution in which they conduct their studies.

It is easy to say that the Singaporean government has authoritarian tendencies, but in this day and age is that really a fair argument to be making from an American perspective? Does the US not take an authoritarian line with its black men citizens, a third of whom it condemns to prison?

By the standards Oppenheimer applies, would Yale establish itself in the US, considering the country’s recent slide to fascism and historically questionable human rights record? While political rights are a beautiful idea, material conditions speak for themselves—Singapore, a country that is 55 years old, outperforms the US in HDI, life expectancy, and public safety.

And it’s not like Yale-NUS faculty didn’t make it abundantly clear that there had been no government involvement. The very article with a quote from Oppenheimer also contains quotations from a variety of Yale-NUS professors who resolutely reject the idea that academic freedom has ever been infringed upon in their time teaching here.

Just last year Amber Carpenter, associate Professor of Philosophy at Yale-NUS, even went as far as telling Yale Daily News that “compared to her teaching in the United Kingdom, she has “more academic freedom and freedom from state intrusion” at Yale-NUS.”

But it’s almost as if these perspectives mean nothing to Yale’s profs. In not considering the voices of Yale-NUS professors, the very people who work and live here, the attacks of Yale faculty on our college fall apart. Their responses take a paternalistic and condescending tone, demonstrating a belief that they know better than us what is going on in our own college. This is particularly obvious in their swift refutations of the report released by Yale itself on the matter, dismissing the report. Yale East Asian studies professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan even went as far as suggesting bias in the report, due to the fact that Pericles Lewis, who conducted the report, was Yale-NUS’ founding president. 

The question therefore arises as to whether there are any ulterior motives to these attacks. As one scrolls through Yale Daily News’ coverage of our college in opinion pieces, largely comprised of pieces written by professors, another trend can be seen: an obsession with ‘the protection of the Yale name’.

This weird fixation has persisted since the foundation of Yale-NUS. As Professor Michael Fischer put so bluntly in his 2012 article entitled ‘Yale-NUS is not Yale’, “the value of a Yale degree becomes diminished since it will be easily confused with the degree from a very different institution”. 

Let us not, however, be fooled into thinking that this trend is exclusively exhibited in a handful of conservative professors at Yale. A 2011 article by Yale Daily News expressed the paper’s official view that Yale-NUS would be bad for the university’s brand. It refers to the lack of financial commitment of the university to the college when it posits that “an unfunded and unsupervised campus in a repressive autocracy will do more than dilute the Yale name: it will sully it.”

It is ironic to say the least that a university named after a literal slave trader has an obsession with protecting its name. The fact is that these largely unfounded criticisms have been incessant since the college’s founding. The most recent attacks on our college are nothing more than the continuation of attempts to protect the exclusivity of an institution built on three hundred years of elitism, and of course slave money

Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised about this protective tendency, especially after the surge of non-Western universities in various rankings. Despite the rise of Eastern universities in rankings due to increased government expenditure on education, many members of the Yale community seek to exclude, rather than engage in mutually beneficial collaboration. 

Despite this, the more I looked into it, the more confused I got about why Yale is so protective of itself in our college’s establishment. Yale-NUS has been an incredibly low-stakes venture for them. The university does not contribute to Yale-NUS’ budget, we do not share faculty nor curriculum structures, Yale-NUS students do not graduate with a Yale degree, and only sixteen of our students per semester are afforded the opportunity to go on exchange to New Haven.

The primary help that Yale has given us has been in helping us develop our own common curriculum, and reviewing tenure applications. The majority of the work was clearly done in our college’s establishment, with Pericles Lewis being made the founding president to help shape our college’s institutions rather than guiding our day to day affairs.

When one considers all of this it becomes quite apparent why Yale professors are protective of the university’s name—it’s practically the only thing they continue to give to us. It’s certainly odd to think that if Yale decided to cancel its involvement in Yale-NUS, not much would change. We would still graduate with an NUS degree, we would continue to attend the eleventh best university in the world, rather than a college loosely affiliated with the seventeenth, and there would be no change to our funding structure. 

I also speculate that our faculty would stop being so overwhelmingly American— it is quite clear that the current system privileges professors from American institutions. I contend that it’s time we had decolonised our faculty selection process anyway. After all, what business do white American professors have teaching Chinese studies in Singapore? 

This semester, with the upcoming review of the common curriculum there has been a lot of talk about decolonising Yale-NUS. We wonder how we can create a university which actively questions the role of colonialism in creating and perpetuating power imbalances between Western, developed countries, and countries of the Global South. 

While Singapore does not fall into this dichotomy, anti-colonialism remains very important in arming our students to critically engage with the global challenges of today. To truly decolonise the university, therefore, we must reconsider Yale-NUS’ relationship with both Yale and NUS. We must stop viewing Yale as a solution to any of our problems and start viewing it for what it really is: a self-interested institution which birthed Yale-NUS solely to extend its brand to Asia, showing up on our campus often to criticise, but rarely to help. 

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