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Yale under fire for new campus in restrictive Singapore

The Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue in front of Dwight Hall on the Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in this November
The Theodore Dwight Woolsey statue in front of Dwight Hall on the Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in this November

By Stephanie Simon

NEW HAVEN (Reuters) - 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's values."

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 Yale-NUS.

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 venture "Frankenyale."

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 respected.

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 University.

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 order.

"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."

(This story has been corrected to fix title of Keith Darden to professor of social sciences at Yale-NUS in paragraph 30)

(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in New Haven. Additional reporting by Kevin Lim in Singapore. Editing by Jonathan Weber and Douglas Royalty.)

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