We at ProfHacker have always been concerned about the issues of academic and political freedom. Jason has written about the American Association of University Professors statement defending academic freedom; Konrad has blogged on using Tor and VPN to get around internet censorship; Bille Hara has posted on academic freedom versus mandated course content in departments.
Today, we bring our focus to Southeast Asia: particularly, the denial of tenure to Cherian George at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Despite producing acclaimed work on Singaporean media and politics, critics argue that Dr. George has been denied tenure because of his openly critical views about the Singapore government. Cherian George’s case raises important issues about academic freedom in contemporary Asia. We republish below an open letter that has been signed by numerous academics from and/or residing in Singapore that has not managed to find a home in Singapore-based newspapers. The original letter is here.
Nanyang Technological University (NUTU’s denial of tenure to Dr. Cherian George raises important concerns regarding the place of Singapore’s universities in fostering independent discourse in and about our society.
It’s hard to see how Dr. George’s teaching and research record don’t meet international standards for tenure. He won NTU’s premier Nanyang Award in 2009 for his teaching. He has published numerous articles in top tier journals and authored two important academic books, Contentious Journalism and the Internet (2006) with the University of Washington Press and NUS Press, and Freedom from The Press (2012) with NUS Press.
While we cannot fathom how Dr. George’s output does not meet existing international standards, we would also like to take this occasion to query whether NTU’s stated criteria are the only ones we need for our universities.
Singapore universities have made impressive strides of late and have drawn faculty and students from all over the world. They have adopted international benchmarks in faculty assessment that emphasize teaching and research excellence. However, commentators worldwide have noted that such benchmarks, which measure academic publication in specialist journals and expensive scholarly books, discourage the engagement of academics with their immediate social context.
While Dr. George’s research and teaching performance have been described by one of his reviewers as “watertight”, he is also one of Singapore’s best known public intellectuals. As a journalist, he was one of The Straits Times’ most incisive columnists. His essay collection, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000), is a standard text for university students. He has been active in public discussions regarding the role of the media in society and as Director of the Temasek Foundation – NTU Asia Journalism Fellowship, forged connections between academia and journalistic practice.
If NTU’s tenure criteria are not seen to support such engagement it will impoverish Singapore’s intellectual community and raise a troubling future scenario. Social transition in the next decades will bring robust public debate among an increasingly diverse populace. Promotion and tenure criteria that do not appear to value public engagement will discourage academics from speaking up. Younger Singaporean faculty may resist social involvement and be content with meeting international benchmarks or, alternatively, they may become disillusioned and leave. Non-Singaporean faculty may not engage the society in which they live but will use our universities as stepping-stones to build careers elsewhere.
In these days of concern about Singaporean identity, academic participation in envisioning the kind of society we want to live in holds out the potential to increase bonds between all of us. We need academics who meet international standards of excellence and who independently engage society. Dr. Cherian George does both.
As persons concerned about Singapore intellectual life, we urge our universities to devise criteria for tenure and promotion that, while rigorous, encourage academics to care about their immediate social environment. We respectfully ask the NTU administration to review Dr. George’s case against the effect their current decision will have—both on the growth of an independent Singapore public sphere and on NTU’s international reputation.