After controversy over dissent program’s cancellation at Singapore campus, Yale faculty call for academic freedom protections

January 27, 2020

Yale University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate passed a resolution last month encouraging President Peter Salovey to develop procedures to respond to alleged academic freedom violations at its overseas institution in Singapore, according to a report from the Yale Daily News. This would be a welcome development as American universities continue to struggle to abide by their commitments to free expression and academic freedom overseas.

The resolution, which passed Dec. 10, was prompted by a dispute at Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts institution in Singapore formed by Yale University and the National University of Singapore. In September, Yale-NUS cancelled an educational program originally titled “Dissent And Resistance In Singapore,” prompting allegations that the course was cancelled in order to abide by Singapore’s strict restrictions on protest.

Comments from Yale-NUS College President Tan Tai Yong fueled these concerns — Tan told media that the course would “infringe our commitment not to advance partisan political interests in our campus” and would not be “acceptable to the college as we are committed to operating within Singapore laws.”

Shortly after the cancellation went public, Salovey announced that Yale would investigate the decision to ensure no academic freedom violations occurred. 

Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president and Vice Provost for Global Strategy and president of Yale-NUS until 2017, issued a report weeks later finding “a number of errors, mostly administrative, that were made in the process of considering this module, but the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee found that the evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry.”

According to the Yale Daily News, though, some Yale faculty members lacked confidence in the report’s finding that the college did not inappropriately interfere with academic matters:

But according to minutes from FAS Senate’s October meeting, several faculty members argued that Lewis’ position as the first president of Yale-NUS made it almost impossible for the report to be truly objective. For her part, history of art professor Mimi Yiengpruksawan said Lewis’ report could not be considered an independent review of the situation. She called for an external review and suggested that the course was canceled because of political pressure, per the minutes. Yiengpruksawan did not respond to the News’ requests for comment.

According to the minutes, the senators drew their information from Lewis’ report, along with 400 pages of other documents surrounding the cancellation. Among them was a 23-page independent analysis of Lewis’ report, penned by Senior Counsel Harpreet Singh Nehal. It remains unclear why Nehal decided to conduct his own investigation. In the report, Nehal states that it would be “entirely defensible” to view the class cancellation as a violation of “academic freedom and open inquiry,” based on publicly available information.

“There is a fair basis, given the matters set out in this analysis, to question Lewis’ conclusion that academic freedom or open inquiry were not violated,” Nehal wrote. “The evidence raises justifiable doubts whether there were sufficiently weighty academic or legal reasons to cancel the program … [and] the evidence shows that the likely dominant factor behind the cancellation was the ‘political nature of the program.’”

[ . . . ]

Still, according to the minutes, FAS Senate Chair John Geanakoplos told senators that statements from critics point out that the course had already been altered to eliminate legal liability prior to the cancellation. These critics claimed that Yale-NUS could have simply postponed the course.

Last month’s resolution seeks to ensure Yale faculty have a more active role in determining “how Yale should handle further episodes involving free speech and academic independence” like the one that took place at Yale-NUS. The faculty senate writes:

We therefore recommend that Yale establish clear criteria and procedures to determine if and how Yale should publicly respond to any such events in the future. This would include recommendations for which parties should be consulted to determine if an investigation is warranted, and for the kind of personnel (whether from the administration, the faculty, or outside experts) that should be deemed appropriate and independent fact finders.

We recommend that President Salovey, in consultation with the Senate, appoint an ad hoc committee with faculty representatives from both Yale and Yale-NUS to develop and recommend such criteria and procedures. Yale committee members would include representatives from the Yale-NUS faculty advisory committee, the Faculty Senate, and other members of the Yale faculty. The Yale delegation would constitute a majority vote on the committee.

Their report might then be passed on to the Presidents of both institutions. The final decision about whether or not Yale should intervene would continue to lie with Yale’s President, but the principles, guidelines and procedures set out by an ad hoc committee would both improve and legitimate Presidential decision-making.

Yale faculty are right to address the need for clearly stated principles regarding alleged academic freedom violations at its Singapore outpost. In November, Cornell University released a set of guidelines intended to address rights violations at its overseas program — at the time, FIRE encouraged other universities to follow suit.

FIRE is pleased to see the Yale FAS Senate state their commitment to freedom of expression, and we look forward to seeing if and how this resolution will be adopted by Yale leadership. 

Is your university considering adopting a similar policy? Let us know at targetedadvocacy@thefire.org


Schools:  Yale University