In Liberal Education, a Cover-Up Worse than the Crime

Yale asserts that there's no fire in its Singapore venture, but, if that's true, why say so much that's false? In an undertaking as fragile as liberal education, the cover-up can be worse than the crime.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

May I invite you to take a short, reading-comprehension test like one you might take on the GMAT tor graduate school? First, here's the passage you'd have to read; then, a couple of questions and possible answers; and, then, the right (and wrong) answers.

The passage:

It's one thing for a business corporation to roll with the punches while dealing with clients, customers, and investors in countries that do things differently than ours does. It's also okay for a university to establish a small center or professional school in another country that limits itself to transferring skills. But it's quite something else for a liberal-arts college to transform itself abroad, as Yale is already doing in New Haven, from the crucible of civic-republican leadership it has been into a career-networking center and cultural galleria for a global managerial elite that answers to no republican polity or moral code....

Then again, Yale is a business corporation now. As the human-rights lawyer Bob Amsterdam was being denied entry into Singapore last month, I was seated at a dinner in Germany next to a very high official of a European university who'd been to Singapore a few times himself. "There's $300 million for Yale in its partnership with the National University of Singapore" he confided to me.

"'What? How do you know that?" I asked. "Yale claims it's not getting a dime from Singapore, although Singapore is paying all the costs of constructing and staffing the new college itself."

"Oh, it's not a direct payment," my interlocutor explained. "It's what you call insider trading: Yale will be cut in on prime investments that Singapore controls and restricts through its sovereign wealth fund. These will be only investments, not payments, so there's some risk. But you'll see Yale's endowment swell by several hundred million in consequence of its getting in on these ventures."

This hit me with some force because, only a few weeks before, I'd written that the real scandal in Yale's Singapore venture is Yale Corporation members' blithe assurance that they can do well by doing good, as long as they ignore the costs to republican liberty and the creativity and citizenship such liberty yields.

When I think of Yale President Richard Levin's envisioning the Yale-NUS arrangement with recent Yale Corporation members G. Leonard Baker, Charles Ellis (who maintains an investment business in Singapore and is married to the Secretary of Yale, Linda Koch Lorimer), and Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV (once the CEO-designate of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, now a member of the Yale Corporation), the European university official's comment sounds right.

Now, here are two questions to test your comprehension of what you've just read:

1.Where the passage says, "Then again, Yale is a business corporation," does the writer mean this literally?

[a.]Yes, that's what the passage asserts, so it's what the writer means.

[b.]No, the meaning isn't literal, because the passage also draws a distinction between a university and a business corporation, making clear that Yale is not the latter. So it means that Yale is behaving like a business corporation, even though it shouldn't.

[c.]The writer knows that Yale isn't really a business corporation but wants to mislead readers into thinking that it is.

2.Does the passage claim that Yale is receiving preferred access to certain investments as a form of payment or quid pro quo for establishing a new college in partnership with Singapore?

[a.]Yes, that's what the passage reports.

[b.]No, the passage reports that someone has predicted that Yale will receive investment access in exchange for its services and imprimatur. But the passage does not assert that this is actually happening.

If your reading comprehension is good, you know that the right answers to both questions are [b]. Unfortunately, the long-serving, much-beleaguered press secretary of Yale's Office of Public Affairs & Communications, Tom Conroy, didn't pass this test, possibly because couldn't, but also possibly because he didn't want to because he doesn't want you to pass it, either. In other words, it is possible he wants to mislead you. But he has become so inured to doing such things that probably he has also misled himself.

Conroy mis-answered the two questions in an official statement that Yale produced after I wrote and posted this passage on June 5. (I've changed only a few, minor words in the excerpt here to make it intelligible outside the rest of the post; this has no effect whatever on the questions or their answers).

Conroy's answer to the first question is [a]: He claims that the passage means literally, albeit mistakenly, that Yale is a business corporation. After all, one sentence of the passage says so, so he pounces on it!

Yale is not, as Sleeper asserts, a business corporation. It is a not-for-profit organization recognized around the globe as one of the world's great research and teaching institutions.

Why does Conroy's second sentence here remind me of a smallish, regional airport putting up banners announcing that it's "A World-Class Airport"? But let that pass. Conroy's answer to the second question, too, is [a]: He tells you that the passage claims, literally (albeit wrongly), that Yale is in it for the money:

Sleeper makes the claim -- based on the conversational speculation of an unnamed European -- that Yale is receiving special access to investment opportunities in Singapore as a quid pro quo for pursuing a partnership with NUS to create Yale-NUS College. This claim is false. Yale is receiving no financial gain other than reimbursement of expenses.

But the passage doesn't claim that Yale is getting anything! It reports someone's prediction that it will and suggests that, given the thick nexus of Yale-Singapore business connections, that "sounds right."

Conroy then compounds his folly or duplicity by reading one part of the passage correctly and then lying about it:

Sleeper also makes the claim that former Yale trustee Charles Ellis "maintains an investment business in Singapore." This is false.

But actually, my claim is true. Charles Ellis, a former member of the Yale Corporation, the husband of Yale's Secretary Linda Koch Lorimer, and a long-time adviser to Singapore's Government Investment Corporation, is a founder and senior advisor of Greenwich Associates, which maintains an office in Singapore. Ellis has written to the Huffington Post to say that he has never seen this office. But the Singapore newspaper TODAY notes accurately (as Conroy does not) that Dr Ellis is currently an adviser emeritus to the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation's Investment Strategies Committee.

As a continuing contact for the Government Investment Corporation and a senior advisor to the firm he founded, Ellis is himself the connection which he has denied exists between the GIC and his Greenwich Associates. More important, he's is one of three recent and current Yale trustees -- the others are Charles Waterhouse Goodyear IV, G. Edwin Baker -- who have intimate knowledge of Yale's governance and investments as well as of Singapore's. Ellis left the Yale Corporation in 2008, just as Yale's negotiations with Singapore to establish the new college were beginning in earnest, but his wife, who is one of Yale President Richard Levin's highest and closest assistants, has been very aggressively involved in planning and promoting the new college in Singapore and will be a member of its governing board.*

Let's mitigate Conroy's duplicity here with the suggestion that he should work on his reading comprehension. This isn't what we should expect from a university whose motto is "Light and Truth." Yet, for more than a decade, I and others have watched this man mislead clumsily to protect people at Yale who were lying, and we've watched him mislead just as clumsily about truth-tellers (like me in this case and in another I'd describe if I had more time and more bile).

The problem has only gotten worse now that Yale is collaborating so intensely with people who crow like Conroy on cue, driven by an excess of Confucianism or of anti-Communism (don't they know that Communism has become corporatism?), or out of spasms of a perverse neo-colonialism that has kept a few of them searching for something Anglo-American to hail ever since the end of the Raj and the Hong Kong handover.

The moment Conroy issued his statement -- paralleled by a disclaimer from the National University of Singapore that anyone was paying anyone for anything beyond reimbursements -- this sturdy chorus crowed dutifully, "NUS-Yale Rubbishes Professor's Claims of Conspiracy." The government-controlled, ever-Orwellian Straits Times and its ChannelNewsAsia did just that. But I found more amusing, if also pathetic, passages by the rubbishers such as this one:

Dr Sleeper meanwhile continued to believe that Singapore is another Myanmar of sorts, where citizens are not allowed any social liberties. Perhaps he did not read about a 17-year-old lashing out at a minister and not being charged for it.

Even Conroy should feel unclean. He and the curdled yea-sayers who write such things have needlessly compounded Yale's blunder by calling attention to what's ludicrous and dangerous about it. "Where there's smoke, there's fire," warns Singapore Notes, a dissident website that assessed my post against Singapore's murky laws on insider trading.

Yale asserts that there's no fire, but, if that's true, why say so much that's false? In an undertaking as fragile as liberal education, the cover-up can be worse than the crime. (Note to Conroy: "crime" in this passage is a metaphor, not a charge, as would be clear to some whose reading comprehension exceeds that of a business-corporation spokesman who reads everything only for its implications for his company's legal liability, brand name, and market share.)

Perhaps the biggest irony is that my post and its predecessors on this subject aren't an attempted exposé of financial and business conflicts of interest. They're warnings about underestimating the danger to liberal values and virtues in universities' hasty and often top-down accommodations to regimes whose repressions of liberty, even inside their own national universities, mesh only-too well with the increasingly obvious repressions that are now encircling and violating Americans in the United States itself.

Even on their own home campuses, Yale and other old American colleges, formerly crucibles of civic-republican leadership for the world as well as the United States, have been turning themselves almost mindlessly, because desperately, into military and national-security cockpits, commercial career-networking centers, and cultural galleria for a new global elite that will answer to no republican polity or moral code. Universities' mad scramble abroad (and online) is happening in ways that only compound their growing pedagogical hollowness and perversity at home.

There may be irresistible reasons why the administrators, trustees, and their celebrants are tempted, even desperate, to stampede in these directions. Unlike the embarrassing Conroy, many of them aren't clueless or perverse; they're just trying to ride swift cross-currents instead of trying to critique them from any depth.

However necessary that may seem for institutions struggling to survive, a liberal education should stimulate the critique even more than the ride.

When only a few colleges like Yale have the resources necessary to stay true to that mission, their default on it is all the more reprehensible. Why don't they use their prestige to withdraw from the U.S. News college rankings and to to rebuff feelers from donors with the wrong agendas? Why don't they cherish those who are trying to remind them, and their weak courtiers, neo-colonial cheerleaders, crude enforcers, and earnest youths yearning to salute, that they're losing something invaluable even when collaborations like Yale's with Singapore seem legal, commercially pure, and "cosmopolitan" in the manner preferred by elites who are bankrupting our societies and our souls?

What's being lost could be rescued, but that would take guts and depth as well as money and savvy from donors wise enough not to think that they're investing in productivity or in conscripting the humanities to providing commercial and military voyages with better-disciplined crews and tighter rigging. A liberal education will provide that, too, but only if it's nourishing more critics than conformists -- more people who are free.

As I wrote in the post that so confuses today's Yale, a liberal education is supposed to show that the world isn't flat, as neo-liberal economists like Levin think, but that it has abysses that yawn suddenly at our feet and in our hearts and that require insights far deeper than those offered by markets and the states that serve them -- as Singapore's state serves them to a fault.

It would be amusing if it weren't so distressing that what really set off all those alarm bells in New Haven and Singapore wasn't this critique and the growing bewilderment, foreboding, heartbreak, and anger over its asphyxiation by a thousand bromides from gilded functionaries, but rather my one, passing account of one man's prediction over dinner that, in exchange for Yale's name and services, Singapore will give it some preferred investments.

Investments in what?

* This section has been updated with additional information since original publication.

Popular in the Community