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Yale University finds no government interference but 'admin errors' in Yale-NUS’ dropping of dissent module

SINGAPORE — In wrapping up its investigations into a cancelled programme at Yale-NUS College with dissent and protest as its theme, United States-based Yale University concluded that the decision was made internally and without interference by the Singapore Government.

In reviewing how a Yale-NUS programme on dissent and protest was cancelled last-minute, a representative from Yale University said that the curriculum committee should have been involved “more continuously and the legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner”.

In reviewing how a Yale-NUS programme on dissent and protest was cancelled last-minute, a representative from Yale University said that the curriculum committee should have been involved “more continuously and the legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner”.

SINGAPORE — In wrapping up its investigations into a cancelled programme at Yale-NUS College with dissent and protest as its theme, United States-based Yale University concluded that the decision was made internally and without interference by the Singapore Government.

Professor Pericles Lewis, Yale University’s vice-president and vice-provost for global strategy, said in his 11-page report released on Sept 28 that “administrative errors” were made in the process of offering the proposed out-of-classroom programme, titled Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore.

He also suggested that the curriculum committee should have been “involved more continuously” and a legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner for the module.

Prof Lewis was tasked on Sept 14 by the president of Yale University, Prof Peter Salovey, to conduct a fact-finding a day after the college cancelled the module.

Prof Lewis was in Singapore from Sept 19 to 21 and interviewed 25 people involved in the planning and decision-making process, including playwright Alfian Sa’at, the instructor for the module.

Yale-NUS College had highlighted three main concerns to him, namely, the module’s academic rigor; the legal risk to students of the experiential component; and the political balance of the syllabus.

The programme was due to run from Sept 27 to Oct 2 and was supposed to be one of 14 programmes offered under the Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries projects, which are faculty-led programmes that first-year students take part each year.

Activities that were planned included a visit to the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park, and dialogues with freelance journalist Kirsten Han, as well as a “sign-making workshop” with activist Cara Ow. Talks featuring activist Jolovan Wham, rapper Subhas Nair and independent filmmaker Jason Soo were also lined up.

There were film screenings as well, including a documentary about Hong Kong protester Joshua Wong and Mr Soo's 1987: Untracing The Conspiracy, which focuses on detainees arrested under Singapore’s Internal Security Act in 1987.

UNABLE TO REACH AGREEMENT

The report by Prof Lewis noted that Mr Alfian had a visiting appointment to teach playwriting at the college last semester and May 31 would have been his final date of employment under the contract.

On May 28, the college received a proposal from Mr Alfian for the module.

The curriculum committee gave conditional approval for the module on May 31, “contingent on substantial revisions to the proposed syllabus”. The details of the revisions were not stated in the report.

The committee also noted the legal risks to students associated with a planned “simulation” of a protest at Hong Lim Park.

Prof Lewis said that while the college staff members in charge of the project was in frequent contact with Mr Alfian in June and July, they found it hard to reach the playwright by email.

They were able to meet on Aug 1, and the college expressed concerns that Mr Alfian had not made the revisions requested, and that he was not “sufficiently aware” of the legal issues involved in his module.

On Aug 13, Mr Alfian offered a summary of the module that “suggested he had not taken the recommendations” given to him by the college.

Aside from the change in the module’s title from the original Dissent and Resistance in Singapore to Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore, neither parties were able to reach an agreement on the programme’s content.

Prof Lewis said Mr Alfian felt that he was getting insufficient information on how to “accomplish the critical engagement called for by the curriculum committee” and it would have been better at this point to have a committee member or other senior academic communicate directly with the instructor.

“Given the incomplete nature of the module at that point of time, it was an administrative error to announce the module as part of the ‘Week Seven Fair’ on Aug 1,” Prof Lewis added.

Furthermore, the committee told Prof Lewis that while Mr Alfian is an “expert in playwriting”, they felt he did not have the “academic expertise” in the area of the proposed module.

The college also felt that the proposal “sacrificed academic rigor to emotive activism”.

Prof Lewis said: “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’.”

The college told Prof Lewis that the module “did not propose to study activism so much as to engage in it”, and that it was inappropriate for a credit-bearing college module that is part of a required curriculum.

LEGAL CONCERNS

Other concerns raised by the college to Prof Lewis included the legal risks to students, in that some of the activities originally proposed would “expose international students to sanctions for illegal participation in off-campus protests”.

The original syllabus included designing protest signs and carrying them to Hong Lim Park, an area where only Singaporean citizens are allowed protest.

“Since the programme is compulsory and not all students assigned to this particular module selected it as their first choice, this might have meant requiring students to endanger their visa status in Singapore,” Prof Lewis noted.

TODAY previously reported that 16 students had been allocated to the module and when it was cancelled, they were immediately informed by the school and relocated to other projects. It is not clear how many were foreign students.  

Prof Lewis said that the college did not receive “timely assurance” from Mr Alfian that he understood the risks involved, particularly for international students, or that he would mitigate them.

POLITICAL BALANCE

One other concern regarding Mr Alfian’s module was that it did not include a range of political perspectives.

On this point, however, Prof Lewis said: “While I personally recognise and agree with the view that political advocacy is distinct from academic study and may not be suitable for academic credit, I do not find the concern that a particular module is unbalanced politically to be a convincing reason in itself to cancel a module.”

In reviewing this, Prof Lewis said that the college “articulated legitimate academic and legal reasons to cancel the module”.

Yet, the administrative errors that led to its announcement and subsequent withdrawal “might lead a reasonable person to wonder” about the effectiveness of the college’s efforts.

“In particular, 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 Lewis said.

In response to Prof Lewis’ report, Yale University’s president Salovey said that it had “reassured” him 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,” Prof Salovey said in a statement on the university’s website on Sept 29.

TODAY has reached out to Mr Alfian for comments.

Related topics

Yale-NUS Yale University education dissent Alfian Sa'at

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