No government interference in decision to cancel Yale-NUS module: Yale president

No government interference in decision to cancel Yale-NUS module: Yale president

Yale-NUS college at night
Yale-NUS College campus at night (Photo: Yale-NUS)

SINGAPORE: The decision to cancel a Yale-NUS module titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore was made "internally and without government interference", president of Yale University Peter Salovey said on Sunday (Sep 29).

A fact-finding mission by Yale University’s vice-president Professor Pericles Lewis concluded that the college had made a number of administrative errors but "the evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry". His report was made public on Sunday.

The cancelled course was formerly part of the curriculum for first-year students at the liberal arts college and was to have been led by Singapore playwright Alfian Sa'at.

The week-long programme was cancelled on Sep 13, two weeks before it was due to start.

In his fact-finding between Sep 19 to Sep 21, Prof Lewis met at least 25 people involved, including Yale-NUS College president Tan Tai Yong and would-be module instructor Mr Alfian.

Prof Lewis, who is Yale-NUS's founding president, noted that three main concerns about the proposed module were emphasised: Its academic rigour, the legal risk to students due to a "simulated" protest and the political balance of the syllabus.

READ: Yale-NUS underlines commitment to academic freedom after cancellation of course on dissent in Singapore

LEGAL RISK TO STUDENTS

One of the main reasons given for the course cancellation was the inclusion of a protest sign-making workshop followed by a "simulation" of a protest at Hong Lim Park.

Protest by Singaporeans in the park is permitted in certain circumstances, but is illegal for foreign students. 

Nine of the 16 students assigned to the module were international students, and participation could have exposed them to sanctions and endangered their visa status, the report said.

The curriculum committee did not receive timely assurance from Mr Alfian that he understood the risks involved, or that he would mitigate them, Prof Lewis said.

"The instructor confirmed to me in conversation that he had not found a satisfactory way to include international students in his plan," he added.

Before cancelling the course, Prof Tan had reached out to a Ministry of Education official to see if the ministry could intervene with police so students would not be arrested if they went to Hong Lim Park but the official said she did not have authority over the police.

LACK OF ACADEMIC RIGOUR

The curriculum committee also found that the instructor, while an accomplished playwright, did not have academic expertise in the area of the proposed module. 

The faculty felt that the proposed syllabus sacrificed academic rigour to “emotive” activism.

"They felt that the module did not propose to study activism so much as to engage in it, and they did not feel this was appropriate for a credit-bearing college module that is part of a required curriculum," Prof Lewis said in the report.

In particular, they objected to a sentence that read: “(students) will learn that in spite of draconian regulations and legislation, resistance is always possible, along with its emancipatory potential.”

Mr Alfian rejected multiple revisions and suggestions from both staff and students, "contributing to concerns about whether he intended to offer critical engagement in the module".

On his part, Mr Alfian had thought that Yale-NUS staff members were "rather vague" about how he should accomplish the critical engagement called for by the committee, according to the report.

Given the issues with the course, the module should not have been put online for registration, Prof Lewis said.

"The curriculum committee should have been involved more continuously and the legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner. The instructor should have been given a clearer explanation ... of the inadequacy of the materials he submitted," he concluded.

Prof Salovey said that the report reassured him of Yale-NUS’s strong commitment to academic freedom.

"I am proud of Yale’s involvement with Yale-NUS and would like to express my confidence in its faculty and leadership."

Source: CNA/nh(hm)

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