IN THE autumn of next year, when the eager Yale freshmen converge on New Haven, Connecticut, they will be joined by classmates thousands of kilometres away on the school’s satellite campus in Singapore.
A joint venture with the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS promises to ‘draw on the best elements of the American liberal arts tradition, but reshape and re-imagine the curriculum and collegiate experience for Asia’. What this reshaping and reimagining actually means has been a source of concern for many at Yale. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, and its government has been criticised for crackdowns on free speech, including the 2010 arrest of British author Alan Shadrake after the publication of his book on the death penalty in Singapore.
The Yale faculty introduced a resolution last month demanding that the university ‘respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination, and full political freedom both on the Yale-NUS campus and in Singapore as a whole’. Broad statements of mission such as this are well and good. But as other American universities have learnt – New York University in Abu Dhabi, Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, China, and Cornell, Georgetown and Northwestern in Qatar – the allure of adding an international outpost at little to no cost thanks to generous foreign-government support is hard to resist.
Establishing a campus culture
A MORE productive exercise is to consider what the business of liberal arts education will look like in a country that doesn’t quite live up to the standards of Jeffersonian democracy.
I worked for two years at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar doing student development, a job chiefly concerned with all those intangibles that lead to the much sought-after ‘vibrant campus community’ of college brochure fame.
The translation of the American college ethos was my job, and when I first began, I understood this more or less to mean mimicking activities and organisations found on the typical US campus.
The opening of minds and the entertainment of ‘subversive’ ideas are essential to the DNA of the American university, but they are not qualities that came without struggle. Opening a liberal arts college in an illiberal place is an audacious act that must be met with a dose of realism. Establishing a campus culture that promotes critical thinking requires administrators and professors who are willing to lead by example in the classroom and in their daily lives, and to grapple with uncomfortable issues.
By inviting American colleges in, governments such as Singapore’s are flirting with the idea of liberalisation, but the personal convictions of those in power don’t always mesh with those of the public.
It’s one thing to receive promises of uncensored book shipments from high-up officials, and quite another to ensure that a Customs officer doesn’t take matters into his own hands to decide what’s smut and what’s not. This kind of disconnect is at once frustrating and clarifying for a university’s mission. If the aim is to help open up a society, you’ve got to start somewhere. Book shipments are as good a place as any.
Flow of information
IF THERE is one hard line to be taken, it is that students should never be denied the free flow of information. The ultimate equaliser of the modern age is the virtual privacy network, which allows foreign students to gain access to any information, database or article – Internet censors be damned. A well-stocked library doesn’t hurt, either.
Ensuring an open information network in a closed society is just one crucial part of creating that characteristic college bubble in which students may act with certain freedom, away from the constraints of the outside world. In Qatar, the bubble meant sitting with a member of the opposite sex on the same couch, for example, and not causing a scandal. The maintenance of this safe space in the university must be protected. School grounds should be a place of sanctuary, where free speech extends from the classroom to the halls and lounges.
This is not to say that elements of a restrictive society won’t seep into the classroom or university. Professors and administrators must be prepared for the inevitability of this.
In Qatar, students often felt uncomfortable talking about religion or issues of morality because of the country’s immutable standards in these areas. Georgetown’s traditional first-year theology course – ‘The Problem of God’, an open-to-interpretation title taught by Jesuit priests and secular humanists alike – caused quite a stir when brought to the Qatar campus.
A student approached us about starting an on-campus philosophical society based on atheistic belief – an endeavour we supported. Some classmates ostracised him.
Yale professors are right to push the university to remember the most basic tenets of American higher education, but they do so from the safety of New Haven where they teach students who have grown up in a society that enshrines their right to say what they please and worship and live as they want, by and large. The foremost challenge that professors will face abroad is teaching critical thinking in the classroom. Challenging authority requires a shift for students who have grown up in educational systems that value rote memorisation over the five-paragraph explorative essay.
The good news for educators is that students experiencing a free exchange of ideas for the first time are aware of the importance of the act, which Americans might take for granted. In a rule-bound society, the relentless questioning of the status quo in the classroom can be shocking, sometimes painful, but it is the university’s place to guarantee that this continues, no matter what the geographical location.
The author is a Washington-based writer who worked in student development at the Qatar campus of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
What are your thoughts on the Yale-NUS tie-up? Is it a win-win situation for both parties? Or will the adaptation of ideals from the west to suit the local context result in problematic compromises?
Some articles from Yale Daily News
- Two staff reporters for the News, Ava Kofman and Tapley Stephenson, traveled to Singapore over spring break, interviewing more than 80 sources on the founding of Yale-NUS College — how Singaporeans view the project, how the liberal arts function in Singapore and how the country’s values differ from those on Yale’s campus.
- This author, a computer science professor, is more blunt about his disapproval of the collaboration, suggesting how it will create confusion in terms of identity and reputation while threatening Yale’s core values of tolerance and freedom of expression.