THE BLOG
11/05/2012 01:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

While You've Been Following the Campaigns, Singapore Has Been Romneyizing Yale

Few people combine the moral intensity of prophecy with the strategic savvy of public leadership, but Yale Prof. Christopher Miller has been doing it since May of 2011, when The Chronicle of Higher Education published his dignified, pointed rebuke to his university's trustees and its president, Richard Levin for betraying the mission of liberal education.

Miller was the first to criticize Yale outside of the university itself for collaborating with the tightly-controlled, corporate city-state of Singapore to establish a brand-new (I do mean "brand") undergraduate college in the National University of Singapore that will bear Yale's name, Yale-NUS, even though it won't grant bona-fide Yale degrees.

And more recently, just before our fateful presidential election, The Chronicle has published an update by Miller depicting the "Frankenyale" that's emerging from that betrayal more rapidly than anyone but a few other inspired and intrepid faculty had prophesied.

Miller's first column noted that Human Rights Watch in 2010 called Singapore "the textbook example of a politically repressive state. Individuals who want to criticize or challenge the ruling party's hold on power can expect to face a life of harassment, lawsuits, and even prison." For several months, he and others chronicled this perverse ethos' sickening backwash in academic life in New Haven.

These warnings have had little effect on Yale's trustees, three of whom worked for a decade as investment advisers to Singapore's government before spearheading Yale's new college there. "Singapore is changing," they and professors they've recruited to the project now insist, citing visits to the country that acquainted them with realities "on the ground."

If trustees spent more time "on the ground" in New Haven, they'd notice that Yale and the U.S. have been changing, too: They've been Singaporizing themselves in ways surprising and distressing enough to prompt other Ivies to promise they'll never commit blunders like Yale's. (Actually, they and other universities are surfing other riptides of global capital, with consequences I characterized briefly in a Dissent magazine essay sketching New York University's claim to be a "Global Network University.")

Now, after six months of instructive, often saddening struggle against the political and academic consequences of Yale's transformation abroad and at home, Miller is writing to correct any misperception that a Yale faculty resolution of last April that crirticized the Singapore arrangement, followed by Levin's announcement of his resignation this June, represented a lasting victory over the business corporatization of liberal education that drove the Singapore venture.

The project grinds on, drawing much of Yale into its premises and policies, which are metastasizing into what Miller calls "Frankenyale,"a "Brave New University: full of 'best practices,' 'shared services,' [business-corporate] vice presidents, and deanlets, and with a name.... franchised to Singapore. A burgeoning administration and an aggressive Board of Trustees (some with financial interests in Singapore) had far outrun the faculty and changed Yale's profile at home and abroad."

The Yale faculty is waking up, he says, to the fact that many of its own decisions are made by committees of professors appointed by the administration, not elected by the faculty itself. Even the agendas of monthly Yale College Faculty meetings have been determined by administration-appointed committees and deans. Until this month, there was virtually no way for a few tenured professors to get an item onto the agenda of a meeting unless the item was approved by such a committee. (The April resolution criticizing the Singapore project came to a vote only because proponents managed to get an unusual majority of professors at the March meeting to force it onto the agenda for the next one.)

Absent substantive faculty deliberation, Yale has used its Singapore venture to reconfigure liberal education "from the ground up," as one university release put it. Yale-NUS is part of a tail that's wagging the dog of Yale College's transformation from the crucible of civic-republican leadership that it was at its best into a cross between Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2016 the university expects that 59% of Yale undergraduates will major in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine -- worthy and urgent pursuits, but not if they come with a sleek, galloping culture of self-censorship, centralized control, commercialization, and ignorance of the humanities' lasting challenges to politics and the spirit.

I've witnessed and described in several columns here the exfoliation of just such a culture at Yale, one increasingly like Singapore's, a textbook demonstration that what's good for business is sometimes bad for liberal education and liberal democracy, whose work isn't marketable.

Opposition to this model reflects not some clash of ivory tower moralism with "Asian values" and other civilizational differences, as the Singapore project's defenders insist. We're witnessing not a clash but a seductive, dangerous convergence of Asian capitalist elites' marketing and governing principles with those propounded by Mitt Romney other American business and political elites.

Not surprisingly this model is also embraced by students looking for inside fast tracks to "prosperity" and to willed, well-policed ignorance of the real economic, cultural, and planetary costs to others and even to their own jet-setting selves. Opposition comes mainly from Americans and Singaporeans who still uphold civic-republican virtues and beliefs.

Some fine young Singaporeans and opposition political leaders who share those public virtues and beliefs had hope that Yale's presence might give liberal democracy a little more wiggle room. Miller's "Frankenyale" column suggests that that's unlikely. Anyway, the prospect of change never justified Yale's risking its own "American values," which also merit respect and require nurture and defense these days, at home as well as abroad. So does the distinctive college culture that has made places like Yale as valuable to democracy as they are vulnerable to global riptides.

Liberal arts colleges shouldn't rush to ride those riptides, but rationalizations for doing so have abounded in the Yale administration's slippery charm offensives, double-talk, and continuing secrecy about Singapore. The university still hasn't disclosed the terms of its contract and other arrangements with the National University of Singapore and, through it, the ruling national People's Action Party.

And the project is consuming so much time and resources -- and generating so much opportunism among some faculty and indignation among others -- that many besides Miller insist that there have to be better ways to engage cultural differences across national borders. (I'd commend Barack Obama's ways over Mitt Romney's).

There must be better ways also to renew liberal education's curricular, pedagogical, and global prospects and to strengthen free inquiry and expression against commercialization and political distortion. Consider the implications:

Academic Freedom: In 2009, as Singapore's governing and business elites were romancing their counterparts at Yale, the Association of American University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers issued a report - "On Conditions of Employment at Overseas Campuses" - warning that:

As the U.S. and Canadian presence in higher education grows in countries marked by authoritarian rule, basic principles of academic freedom, collegial governance, and nondiscrimination are less likely to be observed. In a host environment where free speech is constrained, if not proscribed, faculty will censor themselves, and the cause of authentic liberal education, to the extent it can exist in such situations, will suffer.


Ample justifications for this warning are sketched in "Dangerous Liaisons," a survey of some recent consequences of American universities' collaborations with authoritarian regimes written in a Yale student magazine, The Politic, by Shaunzhiming Tan, a Malaysian well-acquainted with Singapore who earned a master's degree in international relations at Yale in 2012.

And the AAUP statement references a UNESCO resolution on academic freedom that can't be reconciled with Singapore's policy. Here's UNESCO's statement, and, following it, in stark contrast, Singapore's protocols:

The publication and dissemination of the research results obtained by higher-education teaching personnel should be encouraged and facilitated with a view to assisting them to acquire the reputation which they merit, as well as with a view to promoting the advancement of science, technology, education and culture generally. To this end, higher-education teaching personnel should be free to publish the results of research and scholarship in books, journals and databases of their own choice and under their own names, provided they are the authors or co-authors of the above scholarly works. The intellectual property of higher-education teaching personnel should benefit from appropriate legal protection, and in particular the protection afforded by national and international copyright law.

In contrast, here's what Yale's host, the National University of Singapore, states in "Policies Relating to University Intellectual Property":

The University shall be the sole arbiter as to whether any Intellectual Property is discovered, created or developed in the course of University Research" (p. 9 of 21); The University Member shall be deemed to have granted to the University an irrevocable, unconditional, perpetual, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty free license to use, print, publish, reproduce, copy and publicly distribute the University Member's Authored Work, in whatever form...." and "The University may at any time require an assignment of the University Member's copyright over an Authored Work for the purposes of commercialising the Authored Work...

Student Freedom: Even the students' freedoms of expression are chilled, when not asphyxiated, by Singapore's Public Order Act, which reads as if it had been written by George Orwell and Franz Kafka. I have covered this controversy, and Yale's prevarications about it, here before.

As one Yale faculty member characterizes the situation, "Students can hold events on campus, but no one else can witness them, let alone come 'from outside' to address them."

Yale faculty who've been recruited to set up and run the new college have been assuring their skeptical colleagues back in New Haven that they've reached firm "understandings" with Singapore protecting student freedom, academic freedom, and the autonomy of the college. But they keep declining to disclose the terms fully enough to assure anyone familiar with authoritarian regimes' Orwellian double-speak and opportunistic promises.

In a nation of only 5.3 million people living on fewer square kilometers than New York City, officials and functionaries of a government and ruling party that have run the country uninterruptedly since 1965 (and have fired several national-university faculty members for reasons arbitrary and obscure) hold very tight control of the university (and of major newspapers and television stations). The student newspaper and dissident blogsites have been much more creditable, but as Singapore is "changing" a little, Yale and the U.S. are Singaporizing a little, too, in the ways that Miller and I and others have described.

Whose University? For example, the Yale administration has created a parallel university right in New Haven whose curricula and pedagogy lie outside of most faculty deliberation and assessment, as in the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and national-security programs funded by conservative donors.

The Jackson Institute advertized its "Gateway to Global Affairs" course last fall with a statement by director James Levinsohn -- whose professorship is named for and funded by one of the Yale trustees long active in Singapore as an investment adviser - that in a module of the course, a retired British general and the retired American general Stanley "McChrystal are going to do six weeks on essentially what a Yale College undergrad should know about the Middle East or Iraq. I think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our students to hear about Iraq and Afghanistan from the guys that ran the war.... It ought to be pretty amazing."

What's amazing is the presumption that what a Yale graduate should know about the Middle East and Iraq can be taught so quickly by McChrystal, who also teaches another course, on leadership but whose own leadership came under careful scrutiny in several dimensions until he was fired by President Obama. Discussions in that leadership course have been kept strictly closed to anyone but its students, who've collaborated enthusiastically in the silencing.

It's understandable, and in some ways admirable, that students attune themselves to teachers' expectations and promises, but a liberal education should nourish rigorous critical thinking.

Ironies in gay struggle. In his first column Miller, who is gay, noted that Singapore's regime still criminalizes male homosexuality and wrote that "Yale has no business establishing a campus in a state where some of its own faculty members are subject to arrest because of who they are." That the regime tolerates gay life in practice as a profit center and a showcase for "liberalism" that blunts criticisms from places like Yale has distracted some people's attention from its sinuous but decisive repression of other minorities, political critics, scholars, journalists. The regime could still bring criminal charges against gay people whom it wants to silence for political reasons that it wouldn't need to disclose.

Unlike Miller, some at Yale have been fooled by this or have become active apologists for the regime. Prof. George Chauncey, an historian of gay life in New York, has become an unlikely apologist for Yale's project. The same week that Miller's second Chronicle column on Frankenyale appeared, Chauncey organized and introduced a lecture by Lynette Chua, a professor at the National University of Singapore whose research concentrates on the relationship between law and the gay rights movements in Southeast Asia.

Chua didn't exonerate the regime or make the gay rights struggle look easy. "If you want to get somewhere without ending up in jail," she said, "you have to employ non-confrontational tactics." Still, as the Yale Daily News put it, "Despite having a human rights record that has faced significant criticism, Singapore has been developing a grassroots gay rights movement since the 1990s."

That's music to the ears of apologists for Yale's Singapore venture. The same news story reported Chauncey's hope that the lecture "will provide the Yale community with a more nuanced, fuller understanding of the gay rights movement in Singapore. He added that the lecture was not meant to address the controversy about the establishment of Yale-NUS College,... though he said he thinks the campus debate about Yale-NUS would inevitably provide a context for the event."

Chauncey's statement bears an oddly close resemblance to part of a panel discussion, titled "Singapore Uncensored," that was presented last spring by other Singaporeans at Yale. It opened with a brief slide show of gay dancers in Singapore, and the subsequent discussion included comments, Skyped in from Singapore, by Yi Sheng, a gay-activist brother of one of the panel's chief apologists for the regime, E Ching Ng.

Like Chauncey last week, the panelists emphasized that they weren't trying to address the controversy about Yale's venture in Singapore but only to present a "more nuanced" view of actual life there than critics of Yale's venture had done.

"You can say anything you want on campus," Yi Sheng told the Yale audience, if only because "the government doesn't care what most academics say," but then he modulated that claim by telling of a gay friend whose teaching contracts were suddenly terminated with no explanation. Then Yi Sheng added that he wasn't sure his friend's being gay was the reason for his dismissal. It might have been something more political or more strictly academic, because other gay faculty weren't being dismissed. In fact, there's been "a rapid rise in acceptance" of gays in recent years, he said, because "the government has realized that the country can make a lot of money from having more gays."

But other constraints on other freedoms haven't been loosening. Quite the opposite, as I've shown in earlier columns here. On the panel, E-Ching Ng ignored her brother's warning that academic freedom might escape surveillance and suppression "only if Yale NUS faculty are really willing to exercise their freedom and advocate for it outside of classroom."

Here was a plea for help that no one in authority at Yale has answered. It occurred to me then that Singapore's ruling party has figured out that if it lets some Singaporeans showcase gay struggle to liberal American audiences, they'll decide that while Singapore far from perfect, it's moving in the right direction; thus reassured, Yale students and faculty can be relied on not to raise their voices about much else and to acquiesce in arrangements Yale may later regret. Perhaps Chauncey will answer Yi Sheng's plea by also elucidating struggles against Singapore's suppression of the rights of migrant workers and academic freedom.

What next? As more of Yale's faculty bestirs itself to take control of its agendas and decisions and ensure more voice for lectors and others who've had no voting power, it may move toward revitalizing an AAUP chapter or creating a faculty senate as strong as those that have saved liberal education from the misapprehensions and misadventures of university trustees and administrators. And it should demand that Yale's name be removed from the Singapore project, even if that triggers a costly buy-out clause in the contract whose terms the administration won't disclose.

As Miller warns in the Chronicle, "If the promised 'feedback loop' between Singapore and New Haven succeeds, the two institutions in tandem will produce a new generation of conformist, dissent-averse managers and executives, particularly well-suited for the new global boardroom and tea at Davos."

That may be precisely the Yale trustees' goal, but liberal education should nourish and provoke something better. Yale may well have gone to Singapore because it sensed that it was failing to do better in New Haven and because its governors have embraced a neo-liberal, "World Is Flat" model, instead.

But the world isn't flat. It has abysses that are opening suddenly in the ground below our feet and even in our hearts, right here in the United States. The controversy isn't mainly about the sins of Singapore; it's about the weaknesses of liberal democracy in the grip of global riptides that are dissolving republican sovereignty and virtues everywhere.

Yale was founded to show future leaders not just how to manage their way around those depths but how to plumb them and face the demons in them. If they can't do that, they'll only create more Frankenyales.