Well-known figures sign appeal over NTU lecturer

They urge university to reconsider Cherian George's tenure application

Nearly 100 well-known academics, artists, and civil activists have penned an open letter to the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) asking it to reconsider a tenure application by a prominent professor.

This comes as Dr Cherian George, 47, is likely to leave the school within a year after being denied tenure a second time.

The letter, posted online yesterday, said the rejection of Dr George's tenure application "raises important concerns regarding the place of Singapore's universities in fostering independent discourse in and about our society".

It affirmed Dr George's intellectual contributions, such as his books, journal articles and work as head of the Temasek Foundation-NTU Asia Journalism Fellowship.

"If NTU's tenure criteria are not seen to support such engagement, it will impoverish Singapore's intellectual community and raise a troubling future scenario," said the letter, which bore the names of economics professor Linda Lim, theatre doyen T. Sasitharan and architect Tay Kheng Soon, among others.

While NTU declined to comment on Dr George's case, it said "those who do not obtain tenure on the second attempt can continue to teach for up to one more year at the university".

It also said that the tenure nomination process is initiated by the schools. "Each year, it is very common for the school's nominations to be rejected at the college and higher levels of review."

Dr George joined NTU in 2004 and teaches courses on media in Singapore. He was first rejected for tenure - which for academics means job security rather than renewable contracts - in 2009.

His second rejection last month led to widespread speculation that the decisions were politically motivated due to his past criticism of the Government.

Two external reviewers of his application have decried the decision, saying it was contrary to his strong teaching and research record. He had won a teaching excellence award from NTU in 2010.

Since news broke about Dr George's failure to be granted tenure, two meetings have been called by colleagues at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, where he is an associate professor.

Said one of the professors in e-mails obtained by The Straits Times: "In the longer view, the question is the long-time viability of the promotion and tenure process of NTU, because if the right people are not tenured but the wrong people are, the reputation of the institution can only be adversely affected."

Last week, students organised an online petition to ask NTU to explain its decision. That petition has garnered nearly 950 signatures.

Dr Philip Howard, a reviewer of Dr George's application, from the University of Washington in the United States, told The Straits Times in an e-mail: "Dr George was very deserving of tenure, and among the most internationally known faculty at NTU. There was a lot of evidence about research productivity and teaching skills."

When asked, Dr George confirmed that he had received NTU's standard offer of a one-year extension on his contract when his tenure was denied last month, but declined to comment on whether he would accept it.

zengkun@sph.com.sg