Decision to cancel Yale-NUS module on dissent made without government interference: Yale president

The Yale-NUS College in a photo taken in 2017. The institution cancelled a programme that was to be led by local playwright Alfian Sa'at. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The decision to cancel a module on dissent at Yale-NUS College earlier this month was made internally and without government interference in the college's academic independence, Yale University president Peter Salovey has said.

While a number of mostly administrative errors were made in the process of considering the module, the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee found that the evidence does not suggest any violations of academic freedom or open inquiry.

The module, titled Dialogue and Dissent, was to have been led by Mr Alfian Sa'at, a local poet, playwright and short story writer known for his work, which has explored topics of race, sexuality and politics.

It was slated to be part of a Learning Across Boundaries programme at the college and was to take place in September and early October.

It was cancelled on Sept 13, about two weeks before it was due to begin, and led to questions being asked about academic freedom in Singapore. Professor Salovey expressed his concern to National University of Singapore president Tan Eng Chye and Yale-NUS president Tan Tai Yong, and asked Yale's vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy Pericles Lewis to find out the facts of the case.

Prof Lewis flew to Singapore the week of Sept 16 and met more than 25 faculty members and college leaders, as well as Mr Alfian. He shared his findings with the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee on Yale-NUS College and his report was made public on Sunday (Sept 29).

In releasing the report, Prof Salovey said in a statement that members of the committee who have visited Yale-NUS College say they have found a healthy spirit of academic freedom and open inquiry at Yale-NUS College. In giving the background to the cancellation of the module, the report stated that the college had three main concerns about the proposed module: its academic rigour, the legal risk to students of the experiential component, and the political balance of the syllabus.

The report said several revisions to the module were proposed by staff and students, including an inter-group dialogue to allow students to exchange views before taking part in an off-campus activity and a visit by a well-known sociologist.

But the instructor "rejected all such revisions, thus contributing to concerns about whether he intended to offer critical engagement in the module", the report said.

The original syllabus had included designing protest signs and carrying them to Hong Lim Park, where only protests by Singapore citizens are permitted.

The Curriculum Committee chair emphasised that the committee did not think that engaging in activism was a legitimate credit-bearing activity irrespective of whether the protests were legal or illegal.

The committee was also concerned that these activities would expose international students to sanctions for illegal participation in off-campus protests, the report said. Nine of the 16 students assigned to the module were international students.

The report said that Mr Alfian later suggested that these were "simulations" of political protests. In a later version of his proposal, he separated the sign-making workshop from the visit to Hong Lim Park, but the report said that he continued to speak of "simulating" protests at the park.

The faculty felt that the proposal sacrificed academic rigour to "emotive" activism. Members of the Curriculum Committee also felt that the instructor, while expert in playwriting, did not have academic expertise in the area of the proposed module. 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."

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.

This is the sequence of events leading to the submission of the module proposal and the responses by the college as laid out in the report:

In March, Mr Alfian was approached by junior staff in the college's Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) about offering a module for the Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme in September and October.

He had been hired by Yale-NUS for a single semester as part of a rotating programme of artists in residence and was offering a course on playwriting at the college as a visiting faculty member. Under the contract, his last day of employment at Yale-NUS was May 31.

Mr Alfian submitted the proposal for the module to Yale-NUS College on May 28.

Conditional approval was given by the Curriculum Committee on May 31, contingent on substantial revisions to the proposed syllabus.

The staff in charge of the programme communicated frequently with Mr Alfian in June and July, but found it difficult to reach him by e-mail.

They met him on Aug 1, but remained concerned that he had not made the revisions requested by the Curriculum Committee and that he was not sufficiently aware of the legal issues involved in his module.

Despite the fact that both sides had not reached an agreement on the content or specific activities of the module, the module was announced on Aug 14 and students began signing up for it. The report called this action an administrative error.

The college staff sought legal advice on Aug 15 and concluded that participating in any organised activities at Hong Lim Park might entail legal risks for international students.

A further revision of the syllabus was submitted on Sept 5, but staff continued to express their concerns about the academic rigour of the module and the risks for international students.

The staff then asked for a meeting with Mr Alfian, who said he would be leaving town and could not meet with them for another week. They then told Prof Tan Tai Yong that they were considering cancelling the module.

Prof Tan then asked a Ministry of Education official who serves on the Yale-NUS governing board to see if the ministry could intervene with police in order to ensure that students would not be arrested if they went to Hong Lim Park, but the ministry official said she did not have authority over the police.

Following further discussions between Yale University, Yale-NUS announced the decision to cancel the module on Sept 13.

Prof Lewis said that after his fact-finding interviews, he concluded that the college has legitimate academic and legal reasons to cancel the module, but that administrative errors were made in the announcement and subsequent withdrawal of the module.

He also said that 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 sooner of the inadequacy of the materials he submitted.

Prof Salovey said that after reviewing the report, he is reassured of Yale-NUS's strong commitment to academic freedom.

"I myself have observed over my eight years of involvement with Yale-NUS College that it has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia. I am proud of Yale's involvement with Yale-NUS and would like to express my confidence in its faculty and leadership," he said.

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