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The Showdown Over Liberal Education at Yale

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The stampede (or is it a gold rush?) abroad by dozens of American universities to plant their flags, brand names and, some of them claim, the seeds of liberal education and democracy was starting to seem thoughtless and chaotic by any serious pedagogical or political measure, even before Yale made its own bizarre entry in 2009. But now I wonder if globe-trotting faculty and administrators at other universities are laughing or crying about Yale President Richard Levin's not-quite-public, not-quite online statement of last Sunday.

"A Yale lecturer raised questions in a recent commentary about Yale trustee involvement with the Government of Singapore," Levin's statement begins -- it was sent to only some faculty and is posted on a limited-access website -- and I, too, don't know whether to laugh or cry about the rest of his statement, for I am the man, if it be so, as 'tis, whose" recent commentary" here in the Huffington Post was Levin's pretext.

The rest of his message is a tortuous lawyer's account of the trustees' opportune recusements or timely resignations from Singapore's Government Investment Corporation or from the Yale Corporation, to avoid any appearance of what personal and pedagogical conflicts of interest in a venture that Yale should never have undertaken even if all its legal i's are dotted and t's crossed.

My column also ran in openDemocracy.net, a London-based website whose editors and readers know a thing or two about the former crown colony of Singapore and more still about universities -- the London School of Economics and Warwick University -- that have carried their "cosmopolitan" ambitions too far.

In 2005 Britain's prestigious Warwick canceled plans to set up a campus in Singapore after its faculty assessed the regime's restrictions on academic and other freedoms. Yale has rushed in where Warwick feared to tread, collaborating with the regime to establish the "Yale-National University of Singapore" College, an undergraduate residential institution emulating Yale College as well as bearing its name.

Yale assumes, and Singapore claims, that Warwick's pullout has prodded constructive change. That's worth investigating. Far less important was my column's first-time-in-public report that three Yale trustees, members of the governing Yale Corporation, have had extensive business ties to Singapore's authoritarian, corporate city-state, for whose $100-billion investment corporation they've actually worked as board members, investment officers, and advisers, even before and after Singapore was bonding with their Yale Corporation.

Levin referenced my column because he wanted to get out in front of the New York Times, whose Tamar Lewin questioned him about those trustees only a few hours before he issued his statement. Her story may run just before the Yale College Faculty meeting of Thursday, April 5, at which the Singapore project will be discussed.

Levin's statement is only one move in the full-court press that Yale's administration is conducting to justify a venture that, like half a dozen Yale-heavy American foreign-policy escapades, was undertaken with noble claims and promises but ended up weakening "the fabric of democracy" and demoralizing liberal education, as editors of openDemocracy put it in introducing my column. Administration loyalists are working hard to charm, pacify, or intimidate the project's critics, and they're planning parliamentary shenanigans at Thursday's faculty meeting to neuter a proposed resolution (described by its author here) whose purpose is to put Yale on notice that many faculty question the venture on academic-freedom and civil-liberties grounds.

Universities are cosmopolitan and global by definition, of course, but there are good and bad ways to be so, and the bad ones have become heartbreaking for many who love Yale. Notwithstanding popular caricatures and true stories of Yale's elitism and skullduggery, it has had an historic, bracing, often beneficent influence on the American republic and civil society and on its counterparts the world over.

That's a complex and intriguing story that goes to the heart of America's own contradictions, not to mention liberal democracy's. Suffice it to say here that Yale's past contributions to it are being parodied and sullied by this effort to establish a "Yale-National University of Singapore College" for undergraduates. If the project is irreversible, so is the folly of putting so many eggs in the basket of an illegitimate and unsustainable regime.

Columbia has opened seven or eight centers for undergraduates abroad, but each one has a light footprint and could be pulled out if political or economic circumstances require it. That's precisely how a university should do things. It's not how Yale is behaving in Singapore.

Yale's Singapore venture also over-commits it to global neoliberalism and its engines of state capitalism, including the very big engine whose fist Supreme Court has been baring lately right here in America. Yale has too often functioned as that regime's velvet glove. That it's doing so again by trying to ride the new global riptides on the Singapore boat is a tragedy in the making for Levin.

A "regular guy" who, since assuming the presidency in 1993, has pulled the university back from the brink physically, fiscally, and reputationally in the American chattering classes and in New Haven's fraught town-gown relations, Levin has also gotten the right-wing noise machine to stop bashing "liberal" Yale. But he has accomplished that last feat only by making too many concessions to forces of national-securitization and corporatization that are making liberal arts colleges -- as Lewis Lapham, paraphrasing the Yale historian George Pierson, put it in a terrifyingly poignant, prescient essay in 2001 -- "like ships caught in the same current, some more obviously helpless than others, some steering across or against the wind, but all drifting toward certain destruction on the lee shore."

It's one thing for New York University Law School to set up a law center in Singapore, or Duke University a medical school and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology an engineering program there, all of these transmitting delimited skill sets to Singaporean graduate students. It's quite another to try to carry a college's deepest mission, liberal education, to another country's young people by collaborating with a regime as extensively and yet naively as Yale has done.

Such an undertaking should mobilize a lot more wisdom, expertise, and "soft power" than anyone on the Yale Corporation or among its selected faculty operatives has exhibited, outside of bromidic declarations about East-West syntheses. And Yale has ignored its own Southeast Asia experts, at least one of whom, James Scott, has been scathingly critical of the project and of how Yale has promoted it.

Worse, Singapore is paying all the costs of constructing and staffing the new college, and who pays the piper inevitably calls the tune. The new institution is expected to emulate Yale's residential collegiate character -- a new model in Asia -- as well as to bear the "Yale-NUS" name and even to integrate graduates right into the Association of Yale Alumni network (a nice fund-raising gambit), but all this without actually granting Yale degrees.

That last provision is the Yale Corporation's way of insulating itself from an obligation to ask its own faculty to deliberate or vote formally as a body on what will be viewed universally as an expression of Yale College's educational mission.

No wonder that, as the project has grown and begun to take up the time of hand-picked Yale faculty and factota, and as other Yale faculty have been tasked to assist the new Singapore hires during an orientation in New Haven, two-thirds of the 150 professors who showed up at a Yale College Faculty meeting last month forced the matter onto the agenda of this Thursday's meeting.

In the column that Levin is referring to, I tried to sketch what's at risk to Yale College's larger mission. Here let me address some of Yale's latest moves to deflect onto its own faculty critics the disgrace it has risked bringing upon itself by succumbing to the siren songs of neoliberal cosmopolitanism.

Those songs have transfixed and run incessantly through the minds of the same American elites whose premises and practices nearly destroyed the American republic and economy in the decade following 9/11. The new globalism is their escape -- or so they imagine. Levin's effort to prove that his trustees broke no laws or conflict-of-interest regulations is escapist in itself: At its best, it can end up confirming the journalist Michael Kinsley's observation that what's truly scandalous isn't always what's illegal but what's been made all-too-perfectly legal, for reasons no one ever discusses.

The real "scandal" is Yale Corporation members' blithe assurance that they can do very well for themselves while doing good for the world. When you think of Yale Corporation members G. Leonard Baker, Charles Ellis (who maintains an investment business in Singapore and is married to the Secretary of Yale, Linda Koch Lorimer), Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, and Levin, don't think of three greedy capitalists and a neoliberal-economist front man conspiring to drag Yale into enhancing their own investments. Think rather of four knights-errant of a commodious American capitalism, hale fellows well met, boyishly idealistic about bringing democracy to the world via free markets.

It's a lot like the vision of the former Yale political scientist (and later assistant secretary of defense and then World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, and of George W. Bush (Yale Class of 1968), upon whom Levin and his Corporation bestowed an honorary doctorate at the 2001 Yale Commencement, a few months before 9/11.

So imagine these enthusiasts sitting in a room or on a conference call, all of them taking it for granted that they are Yale and getting excited about an opportunity to bestow Yale's gifts (for which Yale College alumni Baker, Ellis and Goodyear are personally grateful and almost weepily sentimental) upon an Asian society that's ripe for those gifts, and in which they happen to have extensive connections.

What a fine way to gain the world without losing one's soul, and never mind that a serious liberal arts education would have subjected these men's grand plans to an intimate, rigorous historically informed assessment of how such efforts usually end.

Instead of subjecting itself to any such scrutiny, corporate Yale, clueless and flailing, has now wheeled in another trustee, the investment bankers' favorite journalist, Fareed Zakaria, to write a column in the Yale Daily News that comes across like a wind-up toy of Zakaria at his self-important, elitist worst.

Judged by The New Republic to be one of America's "most-overrated thinkers," Zakaria, who will be Harvard's commencement speaker this spring, was interviewed about the state of the world last year by none other than Levin before a large audience at the kick-off off Yale's $50 million Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, the new home of "Professor" Stanley McChrystal and of what Lapham, writing of the Ivies in another context, called "the arts and sciences of career management," including mastery of "the exchange rate between an awkward truth and a user-friendly lie."

The Columbia Journalism Review notes archly that Zakaria, who collects a standard speaking fee of $75,000, has spoken before Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price.

In his Yale Daily News column, after parsing the new college's prospective East-West syllabus with affectations of an erudition he doesn't possess, Zakaria, an elitist who's also a consummate player of the Third World card against Western critics of neo-liberalism, discovers in faculty opponents of the Singapore venture "a form of parochialism bordering on chauvinism -- on the part of supposedly liberal and open-minded intellectuals" who, he tells us, can't "see that we too, in America and at Yale, can learn something from Singapore. In fact, together, Yale and the National University of Singapore can teach the world a new way to think about education in a globalized world."

Maybe so, but Zakaria's habit of resorting to snarky put-downs only confirms his own closed-mindedness. Last summer, baring the same fangs he's using to defend the Singapore venture, Zakaria excused President Obama's dismal leadership failures in the debt-ceiling crisis by telling Charlie Rose, on a show with the insightful Obama critic Drew Westen, "I'm not going to get into the what-ifs of a professor, you know, who has never run for dogcatcher advising one of the most skillful politicians in the country on how he should have handled this."

Zakaria -- who hasn't run for dogcatcher, either but doesn't hesitate to advise presidents -- can't help himself at such moments, and his column on the Singapore venture is a sad example of Yale's own transformation from crucible of civic-republican leadership to global career-networking center and cultural galleria for a new elite that answers to no polity or moral code.

As the Yale Daily News staged Zakaria's circus-dog performance, Levin's off-line statement about conflicts of interest was joined by another statement, an e-mail message to some faculty by the felicitously named Pericles Lewis, a Yale English professor who has been helping the Yale-NUS college with hiring and curricular design. Urging selected New Haven colleagues to attend this Thursday's meeting to endorse the venture, Lewis revealed that people in Singapore are actually human, that some of them are very bright, and that, contrary to the impression supposedly given by naïfs and moralists in New Haven who are distressed by Singapore's laws against homosexuality and free expression and its failures to sign major human-rights covenants, life goes on there rather normally for gays and dissidents who know how to conduct themselves.

This Pericles might want to ponder Maureen Dowd's observation last year that, in British parliamentary hearings on the scandals wracking the News Corporation, whose practices not only broke the law but perverted government and the liberal public sphere, Rupert Murdoch's "most revealing moment was when he volunteered his admiration of Singapore, calling it the most 'open and clear society in the world.' Its leaders are so lavishly paid, he said, that 'there's no temptation, and it is the cleanest society you'd find anywhere.'

"It was instructive that Murdoch chose to praise a polished, deeply authoritarian police state. Maybe that's how corporations would live if they didn't have to believe in people," Dowd concluded, leaving off just where the Yale Corporation's equally instructive account of its engagement with Singapore begins.

Yale seems determined to miss what matters: It has been swept up by the logic of Davos, where movers and shakers like Zakaria confide to investors with stagey sighs that most other people still have to be ruled. And it has forgotten the logic of, say, Dante, who could remind the would-be rulers at Davos that they can barely rule themselves -- something many of the rest of us have been noticing since at least 2003.

The very survival of the new global economy and public sphere depend on colleges like Yale standing somewhat apart from these people and from "the arts and sciences of career management" that markets and states have insinuated increasingly into their training at places like Yale.

Liberal democracy -- including the promised liberal-democratic transformation of Singapore -- depends on American colleges' tempering their preparation of the young for wealth-making and power-wielding with rigorous and intimate humanist truth-seeking, not just with a humanist veneer like Zakaria's. That will require assiduous cultivation and courage, drawn from deep wellsprings. "Can-do" investment strategies and corporate administration won't be enough.

Some of the strongest warnings have come not only from what Pericles Lewis calls a "small group of active opponents" and Zakaria calls the bearers of "a form of parochialism bordering on chauvinism" but from thinkers whom conservatives invoke, such as Allan Bloom, Michael Oakeshott, John Gray, Harvey Mansfield, and Samuel Huntington.

Warnings come also from Yale's own history. When the American Revolution was beginning, many people were still as grateful and respectful of King George III, whose American officers, including George Washington, had defeated the nefarious French and their Indian allies.

As the monarchy's subsequent blunders and abuses accumulated, its Tory minions in the colonies began to cast the lovers and patriots of a more democratic America as naïfs, malcontents, subversives, and even traitors. But it was the colonial Tories who showed, as Fareed Zakaria does now, that they loved not the country they were living in but their own primacy as courtiers and operatives in a global empire that was becoming increasingly illegitimate and sustainable.

Many at Yale had affection for the monarchy, or at least direct interests in it, but those interests became embarrassing when officers of the king hanged the 23-year-old Nathan Hale, Yale Class of 1773, as a traitor. Hale's last words were, "I regret that I have only one life to give for my country," for it was he who truly loved America, not just its occupying regime.

Every day Yale undergraduates pass his statue, which bears his last words. Even if it's too late to undo the Yale-NUS deal, faculty and students can honor Hale by distancing the College from the Corporation's abuse of its name and true mission.

Academic empire builders, sailing under the flag of a civilizing mission to bring the arts and sciences of market and state management to undergraduates are mis-educating them at precisely the time in their lives when they need most to engage a liberal education's lasting challenges to politics and the spirit.

Questions about whether trustees have broken laws or whether Yale has reckoned adequately with the Singapore regime's affronts to academic freedom, civil liberties, and human rights are important. But equally important is the question of whether Yale and other liberal arts colleges are being true to their own promise or whether they're trying to ride currents that will carry them toward certain destruction on the lee shore.