Yale-NUS College is now being built in Singapore. Ground was broken in early July, and faculty and deans are being hired. A number of the new professors are in fact spending this academic year in New Haven, Conn., not teaching anyone, but rather planning the curriculum that will be launched when the new college opens its doors next fall. They are not merely working on lesson plans, they say, but striving to “re-imagine undergraduate education for the 21st century.”
Meanwhile, in the spring, the Yale-New Haven faculty woke up from a long somnolence and found itself in a Brave New University: full of “best practices,” “shared services,” vice presidents, and deanlets, and with a name that had been franchised to Singapore. A burgeoning administration and an aggressive Board of Trustees (some with financial interests in Singapore) had far outrun the faculty and changed Yale’s profile at home and abroad. A general awakening took place, and the Yale College faculty began to speak for itself outside of approved channels, supervised town meetings, and hand-picked committees.
One concrete result of the revival was the adoption of a (rare) resolution by the faculty at its April meeting. The resolution was designed to express profound reservations about both Yale-NUS and, implicitly, the process by which it had come into being. Noting “the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore,” the faculty urged Yale-NUS “to respect, protect, and further principles of nondiscrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers; to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society.”
Yale’s president, Richard Levin, promptly denounced the resolution as “unbecoming.” As the Sterling Professor of English, Joseph Roach, pointed out, Levin’s choice of words “impugn[ed] the character of the Yale College faculty” and echoed the authoritarianism of Singapore. (Levin announced his resignation in August, effective next June.)
In July a Yale professor of English and comparative literature, Pericles Lewis—with little administrative experience (not even having served as chair of a department)—was named president of Yale-NUS. Lewis quickly found himself entangled in controversy, after a Wall Street Journal article quoted and paraphrased him in a moment of complete self-contradiction: “Students at the new school ‘are going to be totally free to express their views,’ but they won’t be allowed to organize political protests on campus.”
Human Rights Watch criticized Yale for “betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students.” Commentary magazine alleged that the university was “giving a graduate-level class in hypocrisy.”
Lewis, who said he had been misparaphrased, now says in a letter to me that Yale-NUS students “can gather and express their views freely on campus, although we may have to restrict access to such events by nonstudents in order to avoid the permit requirement.” Students can gather, but if they invite a nonstudent speaker, they may need a permit, which may well be impossible to get. Students “will be free to form extracurricular groups” but not branches of political parties. They are banned from showing “disrespect” to religious groups.
In a column in the Yale Daily News, my colleague Seyla Benhabib and I argued that those restrictions would inevitably put Yale-NUS officials and deans “in loco regiminis”—in the place of this authoritarian state and complicit with it.
Professors with decades of experience in Singapore have warned Yale not to be fooled into thinking that Singapore’s idea of academic freedom resembles the one they are used to. Singaporean legislation, they warn, directly contravenes accepted norms. But those cautions have been ignored. The president of the Yale-NUS governing board, Kay Kuok, herself says that the “liberal” in liberal arts means “broad rather than free.” A center that was to include “human rights” in its name was just aborted by Singapore Management University.
The improbable but much-touted idea of a “bubble” of special rights and exemptions surrounding Yale-NUS has slowly faded away; now the emphasis, often repeated, is on compliance with Singaporean law. Underpinning the entire enterprise is something called the “Yale-NUS Agreement,” which officials quote from selectively but refuse to disclose; Lewis has told me it will never see the light of day.
He says that “Yale is making no [financial] investment” in Yale-NUS and “is being fully reimbursed for any costs it incurs,” but some in the Yale administration have spoken in private about concerns that Yale-NUS is drawing much-needed funds away from academic support and programming at the New Haven campus. And this just in: Although we were told that Yale-NUS will not be a branch campus of Yale and “has nothing to do with Yale,” it turns out that applicants to the old Yale can also apply to the new Yale-NUS at no extra cost, simply by checking a box on the existing application.
In short, Yale-NUS is unfolding with the ethical and civic compromises that were so easy to foresee. But there is more to it than that. Yale-NUS is being conceived as the realization of a dream that has been harder, but not impossible, to implement in New Haven. That is the idea of a new, smooth and seamless, singular liberal-arts curriculum: centrally controlled, departmentless, and monolingual. (“Avoid[ing] the language barrier” was one thing that attracted Yale to Singapore, where the language of instruction is English.) Departments, in this view, are “silos,” presumed to “hobble” knowledge; they are supposedly stuck in a fractious condition of specificity.
What is proposed instead is something centrally conceived and regulated—more than a mere convenience in an authoritarian state. Yet on the intellectual front, this new model of the liberal arts disingenuously waves the flags of “difference” and “interdisciplinarity,” as if they were novel concepts. (“Many nations live by different traditions and norms,” the Yale-NUS Prospectus helpfully tells us.)
The surprise is that that model has already made inroads in New Haven, with the rise of homogenized, nondepartmental programs and majors with bland titles like “Humanities” or “Global Studies”—and excrescences like the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The partial erosion of departments in New Haven has led, logically, to their complete absence at Frankenyale in Singapore. If the promised “feedback loop” between Singapore and New Haven succeeds, the two institutions in tandem will produce a new generation of conformist, dissent-averse managers and executives, particularly well suited for the new global boardroom and tea at Davos.
Christopher L. Miller is a professor of African-American studies and French at Yale University.