Yale Will Leave Singapore--at Singapore's Request

A collaboration that began with unanswered questions about human rights and academic freedom ends in questions about whether Yale-NUS College was ever an academic project to begin with

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Today, the surprising news in my inbox was that Yale University is retreating from Singapore. The university is drawing down its ten-year collaboration with the National University of Singapore (NUS): the project will end in 2025 when this fall’s class graduates. This partnership gave an American-style liberal arts education* to Asian students expected to function in a global economy. In return, Yale students had the opportunity to do a semester in a glittering, cosmopolitan, dictatorial city-state without ever stepping outside the Yale brand.

I don’t know why I was surprised, except that universities move so slowly that it’s rare to see a project rammed through by administrators over faculty objections that simply dissolve. This is why, in case you have ever wondered, faculties often go to the mattresses over policy changes that would be insignificant or unremarkable in other corporate entities. As a result, things get instituted that never go away, no matter how badly they work out.

But this one did, although according to Jim Sleeper at Asia Sentinal, the closing of Yale-NUS College is more of a “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” situation. Various reasons have been cited: it wasn’t a financial success, and some in Singapore (much like the far less glittering city of New Haven) resented Yale’s “elitist presence.” Sleeper cites Yale’s long involvement with colonial projects in Asia, specifically Singapore, as an important context.

But in fact, as Sleeper argues, none of these reasons were decisive. Singapore no longer wished to buy what Yale had to sell: American-style democracy and capitalism, which, Sleeper argues, are losing value around the globe. So instead, the country is turning its face east to China.

Part of what is instructive about this failed relationship, for those who think that the ills of today’s universities can be traced back to antiquated systems of faculty governance, is that Yale faculty concerns about the NUS partnership were loud but irrelevant from beginning to end. Back in 2011, when Yale announced the initiative, it promised that Yale-NUS College would be like Yale—but in Singapore. It would be structured around Yale’s residential college model and a new curriculum that would “synthesize Western and Asian perspectives with an integrated general education spanning the first two years of study before concentration on a major.” This kind of education would offer an alternative to Asian students, who “ordinarily undergo specialized education in a field of study chosen before they matriculate.”

At no point did this announcement or fact sheet discuss Singapore’s well-documented human rights issues, the severe criminal penalties for homosexuality and political crimes, and how this might undermine the teaching of critical thought. But the Yale faculty, most of whom learned about this initiative when the rest of the public did, was incensed. It challenged the administration’s desire to jump into a “global university” game—New York University had already thrown down the gauntlet in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai—which required holding hands with dictators.

But, as Eric Weinberger wrote at the time, human rights violations—while they activated critics on the faculty to express deep concerns that academic freedom is impossible in a dictatorship—were only part of the issue. The major source of discontent was the disconnect between the collaboration’s lofty intellectual goals and its “intellectual vacuity.”

In fact, you didn’t have to look under the hood for long to see that Yale was anxious about keeping up with the Joneses. “From [Yale president] Rick Levin's aforementioned foundational report of 2005 to his April speech in Singapore,” Weinberger wrote,

the emphasis has been solely on Yale's strategic positioning and administrative programs, appointments and gestures that make Yale better known worldwide. These are networking rather than policy documents, from a corporate leader who sees new markets, new projects, and new collaborators. Levin freely cites the Report, yet without submitting or writing anything like the Report: a reflective, cerebral essay that might satisfy his academic critics that there are, indeed, sound intellectual reasons for Yale's giving so much of itself to one foreign site.

Levin's intentions (or Yale's; one uses the terms interchangeably) are more than about prestige, of course. Universities are here to address the world's problems, a line I heard often enough in my two years, from 2008 to 2010, as something of a clerk in the Harvard president's office. Just recently Drew Faust addressed her commencement audience with these words: "Universities are critical resources in addressing issues from economic growth to global health, to sustainable cities, to privacy and security, to therapeutics," putting a timeline on her efforts that dates nicely to the beginning of her term in office: "In these past four years, Harvard has reached into the world, and the world has reached into Harvard as never before."

Did someone out there shout, “City on a hill?” You can just hear John Winthrop: “Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us,” he declaimed, “when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, `the Lord make it like that of New England.’” As importantly, Winthrop warned that the failure to prove New England’s example to the world would undermine and erode the credibility of the Puritan project.

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Indeed, one can look at these campuses established abroad in many ways: yes, some are money-makers, and most are run by good people committed to international exchange. But for schools like Harvard and Yale, which have larger endowments larger than the GDPs of many small countries, they seem to reflect anxiety about how these sprawling institutions can maintain relevance and prestige in a world no longer anchored by the United States and a nation whose fate is no longer being steered through an ongoing, if informal, collaboration between Ivy League universities and the federal government.

Jim Sleeper, whose essay I began with, adds an interesting context: that Yale’s engagement with the world was rooted in its missionary past and, minus the religion and economic domination, it was merely updating what it meant to have a missionary impulse in a post-9/11 world. Yale, Sleeper argues, signed on to the zeitgeist of a Bush administration more or less run by Yalies, who turned what could have been a short diplomatic and military effort to find and kill Osama bin-Laden after 9/11 into a typical (as William Appleman Williams put it) “tragedy of American diplomacy.” Like the sprawling, aimless, nation-building effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, one that sought to create governments and societies that replaced dictatorships with American values, these universities were doomed, not just by the vacuity of the mission, but also by countries that are capable of resisting colonialism of all kinds.

One might dwell on the nature of the Yale-NUS project itself, its arrogance, and the flaws in its thinking. However, doing that would miss the work and perspectives of the many people who had laudable hopes and dreams for the project, which will end in disappointment.

So maybe we can bring them home to reimagine the role of the liberal arts in American democracy: it’s a project long overdue, and it’s time our leading universities attended to what is going on to the demise of academic freedom, democracy, and the liberal arts in their own back yards.

*An earlier version of this post stated that Yale-NUS College graduates received a Yale degree: that was incorrect. Thanks to Trisha Craig, an administrator at Yale-NUS (and an old friend) for the correction.

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Short takes:

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  • Corporations that have jumped to support other social justice causes hesitate to support women’s rights in Texas. As David Gelles of the New York Times reports, “While many corporations are taking stands on voting rights, climate change, immigration, and other important matters, few companies would comment on the abortion law.” (September 3, 2021)