Yale University expresses concern over cancellation of Yale-NUS course on dissent

Yale University has voiced concern over the the cancelling of a programme by Yale-NUS College (left) that was to be led by playwright Alfian Sa'at. PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Yale University has expressed concern over the cancellation of a programme by Yale-NUS College that was meant to introduce students to various modes of dissent and organising resistance, adding that such an action might threaten the values of academic freedom and open inquiry.

In a statement early Sunday (Sept 15), Yale President Peter Salovey said he has asked Professor Pericles Lewis, Yale's Vice-President and Vice-Provost for Global Strategy, and the founding president of Yale-NUS, to conduct fact-finding to better understand the reasons for the decision.

In response, a Yale-NUS spokesman said that its president, Professor Tan Tai Yong, and Professor Salovey had communicated on the issue once the College made the decision to withdraw the course from this year's Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme.

"President Salovey would like a better understanding of the factors leading to this decision. We will work with (Prof Lewis) on his fact-finding," added the spokesman.

Prof Salovey said in the Yale statement that he had expressed his concern to National University of Singapore President Tan Eng Chye and Prof Tan Tai Yong.

"In founding and working with our Singaporean colleagues on Yale-NUS, Yale has insisted on the values of academic freedom and open inquiry, which have been central to the college and have inspired outstanding work by faculty, students, and staff: Yale-NUS has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia.

"Any action that might threaten these values is of serious concern, and we at Yale need to gain a better understanding of this decision," said Prof Salovey.

He added that he will determine the "appropriate response" once there is a full understanding of what had happened.

The one-week course to take place outside the Yale-NUS Campus, named Dialogue And Dissent In Singapore, was due to start later this month. Sixteen affected first-year students were reallocated to other LAB projects.

The project was to have been led by Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa'at, who had a visiting appointment teaching play-writing last semester and had put up a proposal.

Mr Alfian, resident playwright at local theatre company Wild Rice, is a poet, playwright and short story writer known for work which has delved into topics of race, sexuality and politics.

Prof Tan Tai Yong had told The Straits Times for an earlier story that Yale-NUS found, after a review, that the course did not critically engage with the range of perspectives required for a proper academic examination of the issues around dissent. The proposed activities also did not align with the LAB's concept and learning objectives approved by the curriculum committee.

He noted that the activities and speakers proposed would have infringed on the university's commitment not to advance partisan political interests on its campus, and may have subjected students to the risk of breaking the law.

An online write-up of an early version of the programme that is no longer accessible had proposed activities that included film screenings and dialogues.

Some of these were a panel discussion with freelance journalist Kirsten Han, veteran journalist P.N. Balji and historian Thum Ping Tjin, and a demonstration of forum theatre techniques by drama company Drama Box.

Yale-NUS College was founded by Yale University and NUS in 2011.

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