Professor Barney Bate (1960-2016): A Death in the Family
Story by Dave Chappell, Managing Editor
“What is family?” This was the title of Professor Barney Bate’s (Or Barney, as he preferred to be known) Comparative Social Institutions (CSI) lecture on Sept. 9, 2013. But as the lecture came to a close Barney had another, perhaps more appropriate, question for the class of 2017: “who are family?” It was at this point that the lecture theater was filled with the sound of We are Family, the song by Sister Sledge. As the lecture theater began to stand up and dance, led by Barney, he offered his answer… ”We are family.”
This statement was truer than most of the audience knew. Barney’s journey to Yale-NUS College, while fulfilling in many ways, had separated him from his biological family and taken an emotional toll. However, Barney took that sadness and put it into building an extended family in Singapore, becoming a cousin of the Tamil community, a father to his students and a sibling to his colleagues—enchanting and frustrating them in ways only a family member could. It was this extended family that came together to remember him on March 13 with a candlelight vigil, two days after his death.
Barney was involved with Yale-NUS from the very beginning. A keen belief in the mission of the college, a passion for Singapore, a chance to be near to the Tamil community and the prospect of tenure made the position of Associate Professor and Head of Studies of Anthropology too good an opportunity to miss, according to those interviewed.
“Coming to Singapore was not an easy decision for Barney as it meant leaving behind his children [Noah, Isabel, Clio] and partner [Key Jo Lee, a doctoral candidate at Yale]” said President Pericles Lewis. Professor Andrew Hui, a close friend of Prof. Bate said that “when Barney was here in Singapore he was often lonely and sad… because he was so far away from his loved ones.” He added that it was very difficult for Barney to be in Singapore, even though he thought it was an amazing place.
This was only exacerbated by Barney’s family focus. “He was so much of a family man,” said Professor Anju Paul, a fellow social scientist at Yale-NUS, “he loved his [three] children so much, and his partner and his cat.” Mr. Hui described him as a pater familias—a big patriarch taking care of everyone and making sure they felt special.
Many of his students were not aware of his loneliness. Jamie Buitelaar ’18, who took Prof Bate’s course on Language, Culture and Power, said that the students didn’t see him missing his family. Similarly, Adlin Zainal ’17, who had Barney for Modern Social Thought (MST), said that she never really thought about him being lonely.
That may be because the love, affection and pride he felt for his family was plain to see. Barney would often use his partner as an example in class, or talk at length about how proud he was of his daughter’s Marxist beliefs and social activism. He was also said to have called his son every day during his time at Yale-NUS. “I think Barney would say… that when you miss someone, you are building interior structures to love them even more,” said Rector Sarah Weiss, a close friend and colleague of Barney.
Indeed, this positive attitude drove Barney forward, and very quickly Yale-NUS became his extended family. As anyone who sat through one of Barney’s lectures knows, his idea of family went far beyond the traditional nuclear one. “This was his adopted family because he was a person that loved people so much that he wanted to be around people,” said Mr. Hui. Barney was the best man at Mr. Hui’s wedding, after the two became close during their time at Yale-NUS.
While this commitment to the community didn’t stop him from getting sad, Barney took that energy and poured into Yale-NUS, becoming like glue for the college. He was regularly seeking people and bringing them together—always one of the first to reach out to visiting members of faculty and inviting people out on trips. “He did something that was amazing… he threw himself into building this community here,” said Ms. Weiss.
Barney loved the tussle of ideas at Yale-NUS. Prof. Bate had “highly contentious disagreements with lots of people,” said Mr. Hui, “but that was because of his brilliance and because of his generosity.” In faculty meetings he was always pushing for something: non-western philosophy, re-running a CSI exercise or going out for curry afterwards, according to Professor Andrew Johnson, who helped found the Anthropology major with Barney.
As well as effusive ideas, Barney also brought levity to proceedings. “We both liked to joke around,” noted Mr. Johnson, “when I got bored, I’d start to “troll” the meeting, and Barney was often the first to respond.” Ms. Paul said that some of her fondest memories were in meetings with Barney; she recalls one of the lengthy Common curriculum discussions where, as the meeting was wrapping up, Barney launched into a passionate line-by-line reenactment of an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
Barney’s humor also carried over to the classroom. Buitelaar recounted his pride at her late arrival to his class because she had been at a philosophy lecture. “Never let your schooling get in the way of your education,” he told her. Buitelaar described Prof. Bate’s teaching style as “both eclectic and electric,” caring so much about everything he taught.
Barney was also known for his candor. “He really probed this limits of our imagination,” said Wee Yang Soh ’17, “he was not one to mince his words when it came to presenting contentious ideas.” But he always handled provocative topics with sensitivity. He was always quick to point out that such ideas were nothing more than perspectives. Similarly, when giving feedback on assignments, even when students felt crushed by a bad grade, he would focus on what they needed to do to improve and give them the chance to rectify their mistakes.
As well as bringing challenging topics into the classroom, Barney also brought a love of language, especially Tamil, in which he was fluent. “He showed us that we should never feel embarrassed about our culture… He was not just a great educator and a quirky indophile, but he was a champion. A champion of minority language and minority culture,” said Rakesh Pk ’17, in a eulogy given at the candlelight vigil. These sentiments were echoed by Harini Vee ’18, whom Barney inspired to keep writing Tamil and being involved in the Tamil community. Every class taught by Barney would begin with a Tamil song, whether it was CSI, MST or Language, Culture and Power. Buitelaar recalls that in his course on Language, Culture and Power he compared the “live long and prosper greeting” from Star Trek to the “As-salamu alaykum” greeting between Muslims.
Barney also took this passion for Tamil outside of the classroom. “I have fond memories of visiting Little India with him and standing by as he’d strike up spontaneous conversations with people in Tamil,” said Professor Matthew Walker, a friend and colleague of Barney. Similarly, Ms. Paul remembers a meeting in which, while trying to explain the beauty of kinship charts from South India, Barney burst out into a song in Tamil, from a movie that he said emblematized the idea. Barney was also heavily involved in the Singaporean Tamil community, giving a number of talks, regularly meeting with them and taking part in Tamil recitals of Shakespeare. “He was very excited and happy about doing this for the Tamil community,” said Mr. Lewis.
Indeed, outside of meetings and classes Barney was exactly the same. “There really wasn’t much of a distinction between inside and outside of class,” said Soh, which is what “interactions with professors should be like,” he added. Barney was also Soh’s academic advisor, but Soh said that he thought of Barney as more of a friend or confidante, rather than an advisor.
For Zainal, this commitment to community, even outside of class was epitomized when Barney invited the Yale-NUS students taking part in Yale Summer School to his house for dinner. “I think the most amazing thing was that he actually welcomed us into his home and we met his daughters and we met his partner,” she said. Zainal said that it was incredible to have this sense of community so far way from home, adding that Barney made sure they packed enough food for Meghna Basu ’17, who was unable to attend the meal.
As Barney noted at the end of his CSI lecture, “we all have families and they all define us for they are us.” Barney will live on through his partner, his three children and the lives of those he has touched at Yale-NUS and around the world.