Queer theory will be safe in Singapore! That nugget of reassurance can be found on page seven of an eight-page prospectus that was sent to Yale faculty members on September 12 by the university’s president, Richard Levin, and its provost, Peter Salovey. The subject of the memo: a proposed partnership between Yale and the National University of Singapore to create Yale-NUS College, a 1,000-student residential liberal arts college in Singapore. When the Yale team discussed the model college with NUS officials, the authors report, per the suggestion of Yale faculty members “we asked whether the humanities faculty at NUS published on emerging topics such as queer theory, and, indeed, some do.”
It would be easy to make fun of this sentence – I guess I just did – as a near-parody of the preoccupations of the Ivy League professoriate. But it comes as part of what struck me as a usefully straightforward and thoughtful discussion by Levin and Salovey of the academic freedom issues facing Yale as the campus now debates the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding the university has just signed with NUS. (Full disclosure: Levin wrote a generous blurb for my new book, and I’m a Yale grad, though not an especially loyal one.)
Yale’s leaders make it clear that academic freedom has been a core question in their deliberations thus far. The prospectus says that they “have been grappling with the key question of whether liberal education can be successful where there is not the opportunity for public demonstrations as we know them, where defamation laws are much broader than they are in the United States, and where the popular writings of academics addressed to public audiences may be subject to such laws.” Their answer, ultimately, is yes, based on what they found to be the ability of NUS faculty members to publish and teach freely on controversial topics, and on the lack of academic constraints reported by New York University professors teaching in the dual Master’s program in law with NUS that was established in 2007. Levin and Salovey note that their NUS and Ministry of Education partners have agreed to include reasonably strong language on academic freedom if a final deal is struck.
At the same time, the memo concedes that a number of questions remain open, including how promises of academic freedom jibe with restrictive Singaporean laws on, say, sedition. The authors don’t claim that studies at a Yale-affiliated campus in Singapore would be a carbon copy of what exists in New Haven. They suggest instead that anybody who goes to teach or study there should approach the experience much as do their counterparts who go to Yale-Peking’s undergrad program, or to Yale med school’s recently established research program with Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University. “We know that there are some in our community who believe that Yale should not have programs in places where the form of government and the laws regulating behavior are significantly different form our own,” Levin and Salovey write. They respect such views, they say. But, they write, “there is real opportunity for robust inquiry and discussion on the NUS campus,” where the Yale-NUS college would be noteworthy, among other things, for bringing rigorous liberal arts education to Asia, where undergraduates specialize very early and are not, to say the least, typically urged to question authority. In other words, Yale’s leaders believe that whatever tradeoffs are involved would be worth making.
I think they’re right. At least I hope they’re right. I believe that, on balance, ventures such as NYU’s just-opened liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi, or the Western branch campuses in Qatar’s Education City, will slowly but surely have a liberalizing effect on the societies where they operate. There’s already some evidence to support this view (co-education itself, for instance, and the open campus debates that are taking place on contentious issues). But the long-term impact of these incremental changes is, inevitably, uncertain.
The Yale-NUS proposal is significant for many reasons, not least because of Levin’s great influence in matters of global higher education. Levin has written persuasively (including in a May/June 2010 Foreign Affairs essay) about the strong interest in liberal arts that has begun to develop in Asian nations. This venture gives him a chance to put his ideas into practice. He has also been cautious about embracing the conventional branch campus model. In this case, Yale would not be establishing a stand-alone campus but would be joining an established university. It would spend none of its own funds. It would, moreover, protect its brand through a split-the-baby approach that lends its name — and its hands-on intellectual guidance — to Yale-NUS College but does not permit the college to grant actual Yale degrees (diplomas would be awarded by NUS). These plans seem to have been carefully laid. But Levin surely understands that the ultimate test of Yale-NUS College, if it goes forward, will be not only whether Yale can preserve its core values of free inquiry on this new campus, but whether it can extend those values, in a lasting way, to Singapore and beyond.