The Yale-NUS controversy in perspective — Michael Montesano
APRIL 13 — There has been understandable concern here in Singapore over the tone and content of last week’s Yale College faculty resolution on the proposed Yale-NUS liberal arts college.
Many Singaporeans found that resolution condescending and even insulting to Singapore. They wondered, too, how well the Yale faculty who voted to support the resolution really understood this country and the texture of its daily life, including the life of its universities.
In fact, the resolution and the vote in its support say far more about Yale than they do about Singapore. They reflect the approach that Yale’s current leadership has taken to the university’s partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS).
They represent the Yale faculty’s uneasiness with that approach and its recourse to the only means available to make that uneasiness plain. The resolution was, that is, a clear vote of no confidence in Yale’s leadership, rather than a vote of no confidence in Singapore.
Simply put, when Yale’s current leadership entered into its agreement to help establish a wholly Singapore-funded college in partnership with NUS, it may have promised more than it could deliver.
Yale’s leadership entered into an arrangement with the government of Singapore and into a partnership with NUS without adequately considering the need to build support for its Singapore adventure among stakeholders at Yale. This has proved a grave mistake.
Knowing very little about Singapore and choosing to expose only very few members of the Yale faculty to very short visits to this country, Yale’s leadership and its allies on campus made no serious effort to articulate either Yale’s or Singapore’s rationale for establishing a liberal arts college here.
They did not explain the Singapore government’s vision of the education sector as a crucial part of its economy of the future and its hope that Yale would join other institutions in advancing that sector. They were not candid about the full implications of Yale’s proposed partnership with NUS.
Yale’s leadership also adopted a defensive and even smug tone when asked to explain those implications to stakeholders at Yale.
These choices on the part of Yale’s leadership meant that it forfeited much of its credibility with those stakeholders.
When, in appointing Yale-affiliated members of the governing board of the proposed liberal arts college, that leadership failed to select any Singaporean or South-east Asian alumni of Yale, it missed an important opportunity to regain credibility.
Those alumni, who include one of the Singaporeans who originally proposed creating a liberal arts college in Singapore as long ago as 2004, could have helped Yale’s leadership convincingly explain the venture to stakeholders at Yale. They could also have helped oversee the new college to ensure its academic integrity in a context unfamiliar to those stake-holders.
Yale’s leadership has every formal right to enter into its partnership with NUS. But in disregarding the need to bring other interested parties at Yale along, it has nevertheless pitched the university into a deep crisis of governance and imperilled Yale’s ability to be a reliable partner for Singapore over the long run.
In the weeks ahead, as media attention to these errors leads Yale alumni to understand the magnitude of the commitments to Singapore that the university has made with so little explanation, this crisis may well grow even more serious.
Already, some Yale alumni are sharing with one another the thought that his mishandling of the NUS tie-up should cost Yale’s president his job. This outcome would only further undercut Yale’s ability to serve as a reliable partner for Singapore.
The heavy seas that the proposed Yale-NUS liberal arts college has encountered suggest general lessons for Singapore, as it pursues its goal of making the Republic an educational and academic hub.
These lessons have less to do with issues like the nature and scope of academic freedom than with truly nuts-and-bolt concerns.
To date, work towards making Singapore an academic hub has brought many more successes than setbacks.
One needs only to visit Singapore’s universities, polytechnics, private schools and labs; to look at the faces of the students and scholars; and to hear the range of languages spoken at these institutions in order to sample those successes.
No one ever said that pushing Singapore’s academic hub towards even greater successes was going to be easy.
Not least, that effort will continue to encounter the need to balance the needs and aspirations of Singaporeans with the country’s ambitions to emerge as a leading academic centre of international stature.
Singapore and Singaporeans will negotiate such challenges according to their own best judgement.
And, whether the proposed Yale-NUS college comes to fruition or not, its case makes clear the need for Singapore to understand the internal dynamics of the institutions with which it would collaborate and to scrutinise the undertakings offered by the leadership of those institutions in the light of those dynamics.
Using Singapore’s valuable resources wisely to invest in the education sector demands no less. — Today
* Michael Montesano graduated from Yale in 1983 and taught in NUS’ Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences during 1999-2008. In 2009, he was an inaugural recipient of the NUS Alumni Advisory Board’s Inspiring Mentor Award.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.