Habitats for academic freedom

Elizabeth Redden

Inside Higher Ed

Can academic freedom exist in a country where speech is not free? Can liberal education flourish in an illiberal context?

These are two of the questions that Yale University faces in considering whether to establish, in partnership with the National University of Singapore, a liberal arts college on the NUS campus. As Yale’s president and provost write in a prospectus about the proposed venture, “We have been grappling with the key question of whether liberal education can be successful where there is not the opportunity for public demonstrations as we know them, where defamation laws are much broader than they are in the United States, and where the popular writings of academics addressed to public audiences may be subject to such laws.”

A strict constructionist would likely say no. And that would be it. But, for better or worse, issues of academic freedom are among the areas of negotiation when it comes to the establishment of branch campuses, and a distinction is often made in these discussions between what can happen on the campus and off; between any constrictions on academic life – in regard to teaching and scholarly publications, in particular — and the strictures of the broader society. Singapore, for its part, has been described as having a “culture of control.” The country ranks 133rd out of 175 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2009 index of press freedom.

A spokesman declined to make Yale administrators available for an interview on the issue of academic freedom, but in its prospectus, Yale notes that it has negotiated the following provision with NUS and Singapore’s Ministry of Education: “The college upholds the principles of academic freedom and open inquiry, essential core values in higher education of the highest caliber. Faculty and students in the college will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, and to teach in the classroom and express themselves on campus, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the college.”

And yet the prospectus acknowledges, too, that the language of the above provision “leaves open certain operational issues about how academic freedom actually functions for faculty and students in Singapore. These issues largely concern the application of the general criminal and civil laws of Singapore” – specifically, laws related to public demonstrations, defamation, and sedition. For instance, the prospectus acknowledges that Singapore’s civil and criminal laws “impose constraints on the freedom to publish articles questioning the integrity of Singapore’s institutions and officials. We were greatly concerned this summer when a British author was arrested for challenging the integrity of the judiciary in his book about the death penalty in Singapore.” The author was Alan Shadrake, and the book was
Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock. Shadrake reported that he is out on bail but cannot leave Singapore; his court date is Oct. 18. According to its website, the NUS library holds two copies of his book, both with the listed status, “USE IN LIBRARY.”

These issues are not new or wholly untested. By way of example, from recent history: a Singaporean academic and opposition party leader was suspended from his teaching job at a branch of Australia’s John Cook University in 2008 when, as a U.S. State Department briefing reports, he was charged with contempt of court for attending a judicial proceeding wearing a T-shirt with a kangaroo in judge’s robes. John Tan, the assistant secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party, was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

“The question is, what are the constraints on a liberal arts campus in the Singaporean context?” said James C. Scott, a professor of anthropology and political science at Yale and a prominent scholar of Southeast Asia (he sits on the board for NUS’s Asia Research Institute, and his most recent book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, just won the Asia Society’s annual prize). “This is a very sophisticated political system, and so the pressures tend to be subtle, but constant, on exactly where the limits are of what’s tolerated and what’s not tolerated, so I worry that over time there would be a gradual narrowing of the realm of inquiry and teaching and the things that one could assign,” he said.

“Then the question becomes, what does a liberal arts institution do? And obviously some things at the level of the campus — as long as they stay on the campus — will probably be tolerated, but certainly not outside the campus, I don’t believe.

“I think Yale’s bet is they will be able to liberalize the academic scene at NUS by having a Yale campus, and that’s what the progressive forces in Singapore hope too, so there’s a coincidence of interest between what Yale would like to see and what the progressives of Singapore would like to see. The question then is whether Yale liberalizes Singapore or whether Singapore Singapore-izes the Yale-NUS campus over time.”

That said, Scott stressed that his concerns should be taken as those of the loyal opposition, in the British sense of the term. He has, he said, Yale’s best interests at heart. He added: “And I think, in fact, there’s a possibility that I may be wrong and it might work out.”

The ‘Boston of the East’

In September, Yale signed a nonbinding memorandum of understanding that would serve as the basis for any final agreement for a Yale-NUS campus, and held meetings for ladder faculty from across Yale. (Prior to this, 19 Yale faculty members sat on three different planning committees, focused on the curriculum, residential and co-curricular life, and faculty development, respectively.) A final decision on whether to proceed with the partnership is still pending, although there is a sense among some that it is fait accompli. In any case the vision is for a selective undergraduate college of 1,000 students to open in the fall of 2013. The college would award NUS degrees, as opposed to Yale degrees (Yale backed out of a deal to open an arts institute in Abu Dhabi a few years back in part because the university resisted offering its own degrees overseas). The cost of the venture would be covered by NUS and the Singaporean government. The Singaporean government has been active in courting and subsidizing new campuses for foreign universities, per its stated aspirations to be “The Boston of the East” – a global educational hub. Yale would represent its biggest catch yet.

Two foreign universities have ended collaborations with Singapore’s government in high-profile divorces – first Johns Hopkins University, which had a graduate biomedical campus, and then the University of New South Wales, in Australia, which in 2007 closed down what was supposed to be a full-fledged campus. The hope was to attract 15,000 students, but enrollments instead were around 150. Among those foreign universities that are operating in Singapore are Duke and New York Universities, ESSEC and INSEAD (two business schools based in France), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Universities of Chicago and Nevada at Las Vegas.

These institutions offer specialized, professional programs – Duke jointly operates the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, for instance, and Chicago’s business school offers an executive MBA degree in Singapore. This being the case, they don’t have, say, political science departments, which might have a hard time avoiding sensitive topics in Singapore. The closest parallel to a liberal arts campus may be NYU’s master of law program at NUS, and Yale administrators have consulted with NYU’s law dean, Richard Revesz, on issues of academic freedom. The language in NYU’s agreement with NUS stipulates: “Faculty and Students in the program will have the same academic freedom at
[email protected] to teach, criticize, and discuss ideas and policies that they enjoy when teaching or taking the classes in New York.”

[email protected] program began in 2007, and so far, Revesz said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, there haven’t been any problems. “We’ve taught various international human rights courses and we’ve also taught a course on the death penalty, which is a controversial topic in Singapore, and they’ve been taught by prominent professors with a strong international reputation, and strong views attached to them, and they’ve had no problem.”

As for any potential for self-censorship, Revesz said, “The bulk of our curriculum there is taught by faculty who teach in New York, and they mostly teach three-week intensive courses [in Singapore]. They’re basically teaching the same course that they’re teaching in New York, in many cases using the same syllabus. I’ve talked with the faculty, I know the similarity of the courses, and I’m convinced there’s no self-censorship going on among our faculty at all.”

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the NYU people, from colleagues we’ve talked to at NUS, or formerly at NUS, and we’ve had a very positive impression of what happens on campus and in classrooms,” said Charles Bailyn, a professor of astronomy at Yale who will be the inaugural dean of the Yale-NUS campus if it becomes a reality. “We would not be proceeding if we didn’t think that we would have the freedom we need to operate scholarly research and classroom activities in a way that’s really very similar to what we can do here.”

“Beyond that you can ask all sorts of difficult questions about what kinds of regimes do you want to be a part of. You can ask that about the United States, too. That’s a different kind of question, but the basic question is — is this an environment in which liberal arts can actually function? We were satisfied – we, I mean the Yale administration and those of us on the faculty who were being consulted at the time, over the summer — we were satisfied that the on-campus situation is going to be OK,” Bailyn said. “It is conceivable, I suppose, that we were being naïve, but our feeling is this is a situation in which it’s better to engage than not to. There are those who disagree with this.”

If Yale does push forward with the project, there will be a joint advisory working group, made up of NUS and Yale faculty, who would be the first point of recourse for any specific problems that might arise. And, if worst came to worst, Bailyn said, “It’s also true, as President [Richard] Levin keeps pointing out, we’ve got a pretty strong escape clause, and if the terrible visions of some of the people who are opposed to this venture, if they turn out to be more foresighted than the rest of us, we can pull out. Obviously that’s a tough thing to do, having gone in. It’s much tougher to get out than to have not come in.”

Levels of engagement

The question, which Bailyn noted, is often phrased as, “Is it better to engage or not to engage?” But indeed there are multiple forms of engagement – ranging from individual exchange, such as in the case of study abroad or faculty exchange, to the establishment of a branch campus. And in this case the partners are not necessarily equals. After all, Yale is not paying to develop a campus of its own, somewhere in Singapore, in hopes of spreading the values of liberal education. Rather, those who are covering the costs of this proposed venture (NUS and the government of Singapore) are in a sense hiring Yale to fill a niche in Singapore’s educational hub.

And, for some opponents of the proposal, there’s the rub. “I am not an isolationist in these matters,” said Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and a lecturer in the English and political science departments (and a Yale alumnus, for both his undergraduate degree and his Ph.D.) “I think Yale should send students to Singapore and I think Singapore should send students here. I just question the idea of Yale having a formal partnership with the Singapore government.”

“Incidentally, I think Yale should be skeptical of partnerships with any government,” Oppenheimer said. “There’s a difference between exposing your community members to other places and ideas and actually having financial relationships [with governments].”

“I think there’s a very great moral risk to the university in this,” said Victor Bers, a Yale professor of classics. “My feeling is that the Yale administration is extremely naïve. I think part of what’s going on is an honest misapprehension of the risk to the name of the university.”

“I can without much difficulty imagine a situation where a student is encouraged to engage in free expression, which is one of the things that we’re supposedly taking to Singapore, and think that Yale will defend him if he gets into trouble…. And then we have somebody who in a sense may well have trusted Yale too much.”

“There’s the idea of a sort of Green Zone, a Green Zone college. Well, the Green Zone in Baghdad is not safe,” Bers said.

Country contexts

Jason Lane, an assistant professor in the education department and Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Albany, has extensively researched branch campuses. Generally speaking, he said, “there’s an early rhetoric about academic freedom, and a general agreement about a need for academic freedom both between the host government and the importing institution. I think the disagreement begins to occur when reality happens.”

“Oftentimes what happens with faculty — we think anyway — is self-censorship occurs,” Lane said. “There’s not a fear necessarily but in America there’s a notion of academic freedom that we can push against, and when you move to another country, what does that mean? I’m not sure the same protections are there.”

Akin to Bers’s idea of the “Green Zone College,” Lane also pointed out that, in the Gulf, where the vast majority of branch campuses are built, many campuses are located in economic free zones. “So if you exert your freedom of speech within a free zone, are you still protected when you leave that free zone? These are ambiguities that haven’t been fleshed out yet.”

“A lot of that just has to do with the fact that in a foreign country you are subject to their rules and regulations and as a foreign agent you don’t have the same protections as when you’re in your home country,” Lane said.

A press secretary for Singapore’s embassy in Washington, when asked about academic freedom concerns at issue in the proposed Yale-NUS partnership, forwarded a relevant article from Singapore’s
Straits Times, which quotes NUS’s president, Tan Chorh Chuan:

Another issue raised in a prospectus addressed to Yale staff was whether a liberal arts education could be successful in the context of Singapore’s laws.

Prof Tan said the senior administrations on both sides had expected this to crop up, hence the move to address it explicitly in the prospectus and in impending discussions at Yale.

He said: “In whatever country you are, you have to operate within the laws of that country. And I think this is an inherent part of this whole partnership.”

The Warwick experience

Probably the closest parallel to what Yale is contemplating is a campus that never came into being.

In 2005, the University of Warwick, in the United Kingdom, was considering opening a free-standing campus in Singapore, of 10,000 students, graduate and undergraduate. In October of that year the faculty voted not to proceed with negotiations, in part, as the press reported, because of concerns about academic freedom.

“The press at the time ran off with the story about academic freedom, understandably;. it’s a headline issue, it’s an emotive issue, and it was very clearly an issue that was in the mix in the decision that Warwick eventually reached and it was of principal concern to a number of academic staff at Warwick,” said Edward Harcourt, who was the project manager for Warwick’s feasibility study for the proposed campus (he is now director of international relations at the University of Birmingham). “But I would say in all accuracy it was a minority concern, and there were faculty at Warwick who were very positive about the prospect of developing deep academic engagement within Singapore, and there were some who pointed out that actually in certain fields, such as neuroscience, and the work that involves experimentation with live animals, academic freedom was actually broader in Singapore — certainly [as it pertains to] the ability to conduct experiments without fear of attack by animal rights groups. The definition and understanding of academic freedom is actually nation-specific and culture-specific.”

Harcourt said the bigger reason that Warwick withdrew from the plan was that while the Singapore government had offered to cover the cost of developing the campus, there were concerns about the financial sustainability of such a project in the medium and long term.

Still, Harcourt said Warwick’s investigation into issues of academic freedom in Singapore could be potentially valuable for Yale. “We did quite a bit of work to determine whether it is possible to access academic journals of all stripes in Singapore, and it is,” Harcourt said. “Academics do not have difficulty engaging in global debate with scholars in the West, they do get pretty much every academic journal that’s out there. They do get support to travel, they don’t have their curriculum monitored or overseen by the state. They can assign whatever texts that they want, but there are a small number of banned texts in Singapore.

“The other thing that academic staff need to bear in mind in Singapore is it’s a lot more difficult to be a public intellectual,” Harcourt said. “In fact they don’t encourage it, they frown upon it, so while you’re free to do your research in the lab … if you start writing op-ed pieces in the paper and going on the airwaves, espousing opinion on political norms in Singapore, particularly if you’re a foreign resident, that is not something that they look very positively on. And I think academics who have taught and studied in Singapore just have to accept that as part of the bargain.”

And yet that would be a nonstarter for many American academics, as well as for the main U.S. association focused on protecting academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors. “In 1915 was the first time that the AAUP made it clear that academic freedom did not exist unless faculty members could speak in the public sphere without fear of reprisal,” said Cary Nelson, the AAUP president and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the absence of that ability by individual faculty members, the ability of a university to comment critically on the broader society is compromised — a function, Nelson said, “that goes to the heart of what a university is supposed to be in a civil society.”

“My level of hopefulness about academic freedom functioning satisfactorily in Singapore is very low,” said Nelson. “If I were being asked to advise my own institution, I guess that my simple response would be, let’s do this in a place where academic freedom can really be served. Let’s not pick Singapore. Let’s establish a pattern of international cooperation in which our values and the values of the host country can actually interact productively.”

But, as Harcourt argued, in relation to the University of Warwick’s experience, “I found that while it’s easy to stand on principle and say, ‘Singapore, you should never go there, you should never teach there, you should never open a campus there,’ that argument ultimately ends up being a pretty minority point of view, and most academic staff when they look at these issues in detail will see that the latitudes are there to study and teach and research what you want. But the broader political climate does shape the boundaries of academic freedom.”


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