Can Yale's Pivot to India Offset Its Mistakes in Singapore?

For more than a year now, headlines in Singapore's government-controlled press and some independent outlets have taken shots at the three-year-old Yale-National University of Singapore College, an experiment in liberal-arts education in Asia that some of us warned would encounter obstacles underestimated by Yale's globe-trotting trustees and administrators. But even the negative headlines veil the real problem here: Liberal-arts colleges shouldn't commit their good names and their principles to the care of tightly run, authoritarian regimes.

A recent story in Singapore's Straits Times ballyhooed the impending departures of three of Yale-NUS' four deans. Another depicted students as dissatisfied with the curriculum, citing "feedback from students about erratic grades and confusing lectures in some science topics." Singapore's TODAYonline claimed that "Yale-NUS courses do not match students' academic expectations" and that "Lack of depth in modules, staffing issues [are] among reasons for students dropping out."

Most of these stories were so poorly reported and dubiously sourced that they read more like politically motivated warning signals than like serious journalism. But that only suggests a deeper problem -- as did Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong himself, in a speech at the October 12 inauguration of the newly-completed Yale-NUS campus.

Speaking in the presence of Yale's former president Richard Levin, who led Yale into the joint venture, and of current president Peter Salovey, Lee declared that a Yale-NUS education must not be a carbon copy of a Yale liberal education and that Yale will have to adapt to suit Asian ways. "Singapore PM Lee Warns Yale-NUS: This Isn't New Haven," read the headline in the Asian Sentinel.

Lee's rather musty, faux-multiculturalist invocation of "Asian values" was diplo-speak veiling his more narrowly instrumentalist, authoritarian, state-capitalist assertion that Yale-NUS is now in its paymaster Singapore's pocket. That should prompt us to recall the Yale political theorist Seyla Benhabib's more prescient warning, sounded four years ago in "Why I Oppose Yale in Singapore":

"If [Yale's] purpose is to set a model for a liberal arts education, why not engage India, the country with a free and contentious public sphere and an extra-ordinary intellectual life both in India and in the Indian diaspora? " she wrote. "Experiments in democratic education are best performed with in genuinely open, multicultural and multi-faith democracies, such as India, rather than in the artificial, boutique-like security of places like Singapore or Abu Dhabi."

At Benhabib's urging, Yale College faculty passed a resolution expressing concern about "the lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore," ideals that "lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens," warning the Yale administration not to compromise those ideals "in any dealings or negotiations with Singaporean authorities." Four months later, Levin announced that he would resign as Yale's president. (He now heads Coursera, the MOOC giant in California.)

Yale-NUS does deserve a chance to prove itself, and Singapore's mean-spirited gestures only suggest that the college is trying to vindicate liberal education in a regime that's as unreceptive to its letter and spirit as Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, and the American Association of University Professors have shown Singapore to be.

Perhaps in belated acknowledgment that those warnings had merit -- and possibly in a more immediate response to Prime Minister Lee's own triumphalist pronouncement that Yale must do things his way -- President Salovey on October 15 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the vice-chancellor of India's Ashoka University "that codifies and reaffirms how [Yale and Ashoka] universities have previously worked together and establishes a framework for potentially deeper collaboration in the future," the Yale Daily News reported.

Salovey emphasized, revealingly, I think, that "Yale's faculty have been involved with Ashoka from its start and the cooperation represents the kind of global engagement that I want to foster -- faculty-initiated and faculty-directed activities that benefit students and contribute to the research, teaching and service missions of Yale. Over the last decade, Yale has been deliberately expanding its engagement with India through the Yale India Initiative and this cooperation with Ashoka fits into the goals of the initiative to expand Yale's ties with India." It also departs markedly from the model that Salovey's predecessor pursued with Singapore.

In the hall of blue smoke and mirrors where heads of state and heads of universities seem condemned to tread, Lee's warning and what we might call Salovey's pivot to India may, like Obama's "pivot to Asia," reflect an eagerness to shift perceptions about past blunders as well as to regain opportunities not taken. Such shifts are always announced with professions of smooth continuity, great good feeling, and the dawn of a bright new day, but Yale's declarations about faculty initiative and liberal transparency in the India relationship differ almost pointedly from its secret contract with Singapore.

I don't mean to suggest that Yale is pulling out of Singapore or rebuffing offers from the regime there -- as more than twenty universities have done. Just as Obama and the national defense establishment aren't leaving Afghanistan and the Middle East in their "pivot" to East Asia, Salovey and the Yale Corporation aren't withdrawing Yale-NUS from Singapore in turning to India.

But both know that their predecessors rushed them into arrangements that have compromised democracy and liberal education, and they're trying to offset them. Those of us who've warned about those blunders extensively here and elsewhere and have urged more constructive advances in liberal education at home and abroad hope that Yale's venture in India will incorporate the hard lessons of its blunder into a university-to-regime contract in Singapore whose terms have never been disclosed.