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Jim Sleeper

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Will Yale's Alumni Rescue Liberal Education at Yale?

Posted: 04/11/2012 12:04 pm

Hoping to head off alumni resistance to the brand-new "Yale-National University of Singapore" college that the Yale Corporation has created somewhat stealthily in collaboration with the government of that authoritarian city-state, Association of Yale Alumni chairman Michael Madison has inadvertently demonstrated one of the ways Yale College is being transformed from a crucible of civic-republican leadership, grounded in liberal education, into a global career-networking center and cultural galleria for a new elite that answers to no polity or moral code:

STATEMENT OF THE OFFICERS OF THE AYA BOARD OF GOVERNORS, Michael Madison, Chair of the Board


"All Yale-NUS College graduates will be warmly welcomed as a part of the Yale alumni community. They will also be invited to participate in general alumni events and programs. They will not, however, be voting in the elections for Alumni Fellows to the Yale Corporation since the University by-laws limit voting to those with Yale degrees."

All that counts here is that Yale-NUS graduates will get a "warm" welcome when they impress their business clients over dinner at the elegant Yale Club of New York and when, grateful for this access of grace, they respond to Yale's fundraising appeals.

This sad gambit hastens the Yale Corporation's selling of Yale's name and pedagogical talents to Singapore without the Yale faculty's actually deciding on it, owing to the provision that the new venture's graduates won't actually get bona fide Yale degrees. What they will get is Yale's name and aura on their resumes and even diplomas. And like the regime in Singapore, this will infect and inflect the university's nature and mission.

On its face, the strategy seems consonant with neoliberalism's noble promise to transcend narrow nationalism and war with commerce and, through commerce, with global democracy -- an old, fond hope of "enlightened" global elites since long before there was a Davos. Unfortunately, as I've argued a bit heatedly, it subordinates liberal education to corporatism in ways that doom the latter.

It also ignores the warnings not only of leftist and liberal thinkers and a few right-wing isolationists, as defenders of Yale's Singapore folly keep trying to suggest, but, even more so, of thinkers whom honorable conservatives invoke (Allan Bloom, Samuel Huntington, John Gray, Harvey Mansfield). They've insisted that universities stand farther apart from both markets and states than the Yale Corporation or Yale President Richard Levin, a neoliberal economist, show any sign of understanding.

Just how blind they've been in blundering into Singapore is sketched by a Maylasian with strong ties to Singapore, Shaun Tan, a graduate student in New Haven, and, devastatingly, by Michael Montesano, Yale '83, who lives and works in Singapore and knows the moves in this game.

It would not be xenophobic or moralistic to call the game off. Yale is already commendably cosmopolitan, its undergraduates increasingly diverse in national as well as ethno-racial and religious terms, though not yet adequately in socio-economic ones -- a problem that's side-stepped, and indeed almost denied, by putting so much energy into Singapore. Alumni of liberal arts colleges would be well-justified to remind their alma maters' new pharoahs that diversity wouldn't have been achieved at all had not the old colleges nurtured the tough, civic-republican (and, yes, American) virtues that aided the civil rights movement.

That nurturing is being eviscerated subtly but palpably by administrators' neo-liberal grand strategies, which presume that the world is flat and "connected," not that it has abysses which only a liberal education can plumb.

Yale alumni can make this shallowness an issue in the current election for an alumni fellow of the Yale Corporation to replace the retiring Margaret Warner '71. Will the candidates criticize and oppose the Singapore venture? Protests against the facile networking of NUS graduates into the alumni association should also be lodged with AYA chair Madison and governing board members. The Yale administration may listen to alumni more carefully than it did to the faculty last week.

It would also help if a dozen eminent professors and emeriti who oppose this drift in their university's mission would say so. Life is short, and certain moments in history are fateful enough to demand voice and courage at the expense of protocol and convention. A letter or column signed by such keepers of a university's conscience and soul might have a profound effect on others' reckonings with the prospects of liberal education.

Finally, the Yale faculty's resolution expressing concern about Singapore's inhospitality to true liberal education was only a signal, of what is required. New resolutions, and perhaps a strong faculty Senate, may be necessary to restore the independent collegium, or company of scholars, to its rightful role in the governance of universities that shelter and nourish the kind of liberal education that prepares citizens to keep their republics.