By Stephanie Simon
NEW HAVEN, Dec. 29 For more than 300 years, Yale
University has prided itself on training top students to
question and analyze, to challenge and critique.
Now, Yale is seeking to export those values by establishing
the first foreign campus to bear its name, a liberal arts
college in Singapore that is set to open this summer. The
ambitious, multimillion-dollar project thrills many in the Yale
community who say it will help the university maintain its
prestige and build global influence.
But it has also stirred sharp criticism from faculty and
human-rights advocates who say it is impossible to build an
elite college dedicated to free inquiry in an authoritarian
nation with heavy restrictions on public speech and assembly.
"Yale's motto is 'Lux et veritas,' or 'Light and truth,'"
said Michael Fischer, a Yale professor of computer science.
"We're going into a place with severe curbs on light and truth
... We're redefining the brand in a way that's contrary to
Yale President Richard Levin describes the new venture as a
chance to extend Yale's tradition of nurturing independent
thinkers to a dynamic young nation at the crossroads of Asia. In
the 19th century, Yale scholars fanned out to launch dozens of
American colleges, Levin noted in a 2010 memo presenting the
concept to faculty. "Yale could influence the course of 21st
century education as profoundly," he wrote.
Levin, who spent years expanding Yale's campus in New Haven
before initiating the Singapore project in 2010, has announced
plans to retire at the end of the academic year. His successor,
Yale Provost Peter Salovey, also supports the Singapore venture.
Working with the National University of Singapore, or NUS,
Yale is building a comprehensive liberal arts college from
scratch. The school will offer majors from anthropology to urban
studies, electives from fractal geometry to moral reasoning, and
a rich menu of extracurricular activities -- sports, drama,
debate, even a juggling club.
Scheduled to open this summer with 150 students, it is
slated to grow to about 1,000 undergraduates living in a
high-rise campus now under construction.
While American universities have been venturing overseas for
decades, they have mostly offered tightly focused degree
programs, often for graduate students. The closest analogy to
the Yale project may be New York University's branch campuses
now under construction in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
But the new NYU campuses are extensions of the university.
The Yale venture, which targets top students from around the
globe, is an unusual hybrid.
It will be called Yale-NUS College. It will draw some
faculty -- and its inaugural president, Pericles Lewis --
straight from New Haven. Students will spend the summer before
freshman year in New Haven, attending seminars with Yale
faculty. When they graduate, they will be welcomed into the
Association of Yale Alumni.
Yet Yale officials are emphatic that the new school is not a
branch campus. The degrees it issues will not be Yale degrees.
"It is not Yale," said Charles Bailyn, an astronomy
professor on leave from Yale to serve as the founding dean of
OPPORTUNITY OR "FRANKENYALE"?
The new college will be funded entirely by the Singapore
government, which will also subsidize tuition. Singapore
citizens will pay about $18,000 a year, including room and
board. International students will pay about $43,000 unless they
secure a discount by committing to work for a Singapore company
for three years after graduation.
Yale and Singapore will get an equal number of seats on the
new college's governing board -- but Singapore's education
minister must approve all the Yale nominees.
The arrangement exposes Yale to risk because its name is on
the college, yet the university does not have control over the
end product, said Richard Edelstein, who studies trends in
higher education at the University of California at Berkeley.
One angry member of Yale's faculty, Christopher Miller, a
professor of French and African American studies, has dubbed the
Those involved in the project say the novel structure is a
boon that will enable educational experimentation, with an
emphasis on interdisciplinary seminars and student research.
It's a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a new college
program from the ground up," said Yale anthropologist Bernard
Bate, who has signed on to teach in Singapore.
He and others say they will bring the best of their new
approach back to New Haven. And they contend that fears about
censorship in Singapore are wildly overblown.
That issue came to the fore last spring, when Yale faculty
voted 100 to 69 for a resolution raising concern about the
venture in light of "the history of lack of respect for civil
and political rights" in Singapore.
Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group,
subsequently accused Yale of "betraying the spirit of the
university." This month the American Association of University
Professors weighed in, expressing concern about the project's
implications for academic freedom.
Singapore, an island nation in southeast Asia, is a
democracy but has been dominated by one political party since
securing independence from Britain half a century ago. In the
name of stability and security, the government restricts public
demonstrations to a corner of one park and heavily regulates
news and entertainment, according to the U.S. State Department.
Last year a British author was jailed for writing a book
critical of Singapore's judiciary. This spring the government
prevented an opposition politician from leaving the country to
speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Still, Yale faculty working on the new college said they had
spoken with foreign professors teaching on other campuses in
Singapore and came away convinced that academic freedom would be
George Bishop, a Yale PhD who been teaching psychology at
the National University of Singapore since 1991, says he has
never felt restricted. In a class on the AIDS epidemic, he and
his students freely discuss how Singapore's anti-sodomy laws
hinder the nation's public-health response.
"We criticize the government all the time in class," said
Bishop, who has joined the faculty of the new college.
PLENTY OF APPLICANTS
Yet Yale-NUS will not be free and open in the way American
students may expect.
Singapore bans speech deemed to promote racial or religious
strife. As long as they toe that line, students will be free to
hear speakers and express views inside campus buildings. But
many outdoor assemblies will require a government permit,
Yale-NUS President Lewis said. Singapore law defines "assembly"
quite broadly, to include a single protester holding a sign or
an open-air debate.
"Can you march on City Hall?" asked Bailyn, the Yale-NUS
dean. No, he answered -- but said that didn't trouble him, as
"that's not really an educational matter." Bailyn said he had
been promised complete freedom with "the core mission of the
college -- researching, teaching, unfettered discussion."
Indeed, Yale-NUS faculty say they expect Singapore to be
cautious about interfering with the new college for fear of
provoking an incident and prompting Yale to withdraw its name.
"We know what a liberal arts education is, what intellectual
freedom is," said Keith Darden, a professor of social sciences
at Yale-NUS, "and we'll accept nothing less than that for
ourselves and our students."
Under the philosophical questions lies a pragmatic one: Will
the new college succeed?
For all its wealth, Singapore has not always proved an ideal
marketplace for higher education. Australia's University of New
South Wales opened a campus in Singapore in 2007 -- only to shut
it after one semester because of low enrollment. This fall, NYU
announced it would close its graduate film school in Singapore
because of financial trouble.
Other American ventures in Singapore have done better,
including a music conservatory developed by Johns Hopkins
Interest in Yale-NUS is running high. Almost 2,600 students
from around the globe have applied for the initial 150 spots.
Several dozen have already been accepted -- among them,
Singaporean students who suggest Yale's faculty might do well to
back off the criticism and trust in the value of the liberal
arts education they hold so dear.
"Ideological purity and moral righteousness from these
critics will not make Singapore a free society, but education
and the spread of ideas will," Jared Yeo, a Singapore native
accepted to Yale-NUS, wrote on the college's blog.
Perhaps the most pointed critique of the New Haven protests
came from E-Ching Ng, a Singaporean who earned an undergraduate
degree at Yale and remained on campus to study linguistics. In a
column in the Yale Daily News last spring, she urged faculty to
respect the rules Singapore has developed to maintain public
"Qur'an burning is illegal in Singapore, and we like it that
way," she wrote. "We prioritize our values differently, and
different doesn't mean wrong. At least, that's what I learned
from a Yale liberal arts education."