AAUP Questions Yale-Singapore Collaboration

Though this is not explicitly about Chinese or Comparative philosophy, some issues about the clash between Singapore and ideals of Western liberalism arise because of Singapore’s social policies that are authoritarian and, because of that, sometimes coded as Confucian. The AAUP authors below raise questions about the wisdom of collaboration and accommodationism by Yale University with an “authoritarian regime” and argue that what is at stake are “not simply ‘cultural differences’ but whether Yale recognizes universal human rights and the protections for academic staff.”

I’m inclined to say that cultural differences are not so simple and that they might problematize the recognition of “universal human rights.” Not that the existence of cultural differences negates the existence of universal rights, but that they pose an epistemological question about how much confidence, relatively speaking, the West should place in some of the freedoms as being universally owed to people simply in virtue of their humanity. That’s a long, theoretical discussion, in which it helps to specify which purported rights are universal in such a way.

I’m mostly interested here in the practical wisdom of a hardline “all or nothing” approach the AAUP authors seem to be arguing for below. That is, they seem to be arguing that Yale should keep its hands spotlessly clean by staying out of a collaboration altogether if a rather long list of guarantees cannot be met fully at the proposed Yale-NUS campus. (Here is the link to the UNESCO recommendations referenced below.)

Suppose we grant that the list of guarantees makes sense to pursue. It would follow that we should work to have all institutions, whether here or there, make good on such guarantees. But does it follow that we should remain aloof of any institution that can’t make all such guarantees? I’m not sure that’s a good working principle. Perhaps for the very purpose of pursuing change in such an institution, it is wise to engage and collaborate.

Since for all practical purposes, Yale’s engagement with Singapore is already in full swing at the planning and coordinating level, two sorts of issues arise here, I guess: (1) Is Yale committed to working for change at Yale-NUS so that it approaches acceptable levels of academic freedom as judged by UNESCO? and (2) Would Yale be imperiling students, faculty and administrators to an unacceptable level through an “engage and work for change” approach?

I’m interested in you thoughts, whatever your connections happen to be to AAUP, UNESCO, Singapore, or Yale — or even if you have no connections whatsoever but have something constructive to add to the set of issues floating about here.

The AAUP letter:


We are writing to the Yale University community—its faculty, administrators, staff, students, and alumni—to express the AAUP’s growing concern about the character and impact of the university’s collaboration with the Singaporean government in establishing Yale-National University of Singapore College; we are concerned about the implications of the undertaking for academic freedom and the maintenance of educational standards at Yale and elsewhere.

The 2009 joint statement by the American Association of University Professors and the Canadian Association of University Teachers—“On the Conditions of Employment at Overseas Campuses”—was explicit in 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.” As the statement continued, “the movement for international education can rest on laudable educational grounds. But those grounds will be jeopardized if hard-earned standards and protections are weakened rather than exported.”

The statement thus urged that college and university administrations provide faculty, students, and other key constituentss with “detailed updates on all aspects of the project” as it proceeds and guarantee “provisions to ensure academic freedom and tenure and collegial governance,” including not only faculty assessment of programs, curriculum, and appointments, but also anti-harassment and anti-discrimination provisions and rights to procedural fairness. The statement drew further attention to working conditions for all campus employees: “The treatment of nonacademic employees involved in the construction, service, and maintenance of foreign campuses is another area of concern. Colleges and universities as employers and contractors should uphold the full observance of internationally recognized standards governing the rights and working conditions of nonacademic employees who build and maintain classrooms and offices and meet other needs that keep the institutions functioning. Universities operating internationally should adopt a code of conduct governing the workplace conditions and rights of all nonacademic employees, even and especially if these workers are employed directly by a local subcontractor.”

Yale’s planned Singapore campus highlights many of the concerns we expressed in the 2009 statement. Given the issues raised in numerous detailed critiques of the plan by faculty members and others, we believe that a healthy atmosphere for shared governance at Yale can only be restored if the Yale Corporation begins by releasing all documents and agreements related to the plan to establish the Yale-National University of Singapore campus. We recognize there may be no legal requirement to do so. Nonetheless, all members of the larger Yale community have a stake in Yale’s future and the impact the new campus will have on it. The faculty collectively has a special responsibility for the academic programs on the Singapore campus, the degree to which academic freedom and shared governance will be honored, and the character of all appointments. The larger Yale community also needs to know the nature of all financial arrangements for the project. While we believe this sort of transparency is always desirable, Yale-NUS presents a special challenge to Yale’s capacity to maintain the trust and dedicated commitment of its many constituents.

We believe Yale also needs to establish appropriate and genuinely open forums in which the academic and political implications of the new campus can be reviewed, discussed, and modified as necessary. Among the many issues that might be reviewed are these:

(a) what are the political implications of Yale’s decision to assist the Singapore government in achieving greater financial strength and cultural legitimacy through the establishment of the new campus?

(b) what risks to students and faculty are inherent in forms of campus speech, from Internet postings and email messages to broadcast lectures, that may be critical of the government, its laws, and its officials, including members of the Singapore judiciary?

(c) will all faculty, staff, and students of Yale-NUS (including Singaporean nationals) be guaranteed immunity from prosecution for defamation or sedition for writings or statements that would be protected under the provisions of the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel?

(d) will the other protections called for in the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel be implemented on the Singapore campus?

(e) will all faculty, staff, and students of Yale-NUS (including Singaporean nationals), as well as the institution’s libraries, be exempt from all restrictions on importation of publications or periodicals?

(f) will independent Internet access—not subject to Singapore’s firewalls or to its monitoring systems—be guaranteed  for all members of the Yale-NUS community?

(g) can Yale-NUS community email be protected from government surveillance, even if email is sent unencrypted?

(h) will the right to invite speakers to campus be compromised by restrictions on visitors to Singapore?

(i) what risks to students, staff, and faculty with various sexual orientations are posed by Singapore’s laws?

(j) what may the impact on free speech on campus be of any surveillance protocols put in place by Singapore authorities?

(k) what policies could Yale put in place to ameliorate educational problems arising from the political self-censorship that pervades Singapore society?

(l) will Yale seek to address, even overcome, the separation between academic freedom in the classroom and limits to political speech both on and off-campus in Singapore? (m) do employees at Yale-NUS who are not American citizens face working conditions that would be unacceptable in the United States?

(n) how will working conditions for non-American citizens be monitored and reported to members of the Yale community?

(o) will American faculty teaching at the Singapore campus be assured the protections for academic freedom and shared governance embodied in AAUP’s Policy Documents and Reports that faculty have in New Haven?

(p) under what, if any, conditions violative of academic freedom or human rights would Yale consider it appropriate and necessary to withdraw from its Singaporean partnership?

In short, one needs to give serious consideration to whether academic freedom, and the personal freedoms that are a necessary prerequisite to its exercise, can in fact be sustained on a campus within what is a substantially authoritarian regime. This fundamental question is relevant whether one characterizes Yale-NUS as a satellite of the New Haven campus or as “the first new college to bear the Yale name in 300 years.” We do not claim that the list of issues above is complete, but it does identify some of the unusual concerns that are raised by plans to establish a Yale outpost in Singapore.

Some Yale administrators have argued that they have no choice but to obey the laws of another country, but if the laws are odious—such as criminalizing sexual orientation—the relevant choice is whether to collaborate with the country that espouses them. At stake are not simply “cultural differences” but whether Yale recognizes universal human rights and the protections for academic staff enunciated in the UNESCO Recommendation. Singapore is a modern, industrialized city whose leaders and citizens fully understand these values. How Yale addresses these issues has implications not only for the Yale community but also for higher education as a whole. The AAUP will remain willing to address any problems of academic freedom or shared governance that Yale faculty bring to our attention.

–Joan Bertin, Marjorie Heins, Cary Nelson, & Henry Reichman

On behalf of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom & Tenure

3 replies on “AAUP Questions Yale-Singapore Collaboration”

  1. As faculty chair of the HKS Singapore Program, I can attest that few US faculty are aware of the quality of discussion that occurs at NUS or other universities in Singapore. To be sure, Singapore’s regulation of print media has given it a bad reputation (well deserved, in my view). But we should be cautious about generalizing to other arenas. And we certainly should not assume that the US offers a model for all countries around the world. — Ken Winston, Harvard Kennedy School

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