To find the origins of Yale University, don’t go to New Haven, Conn., the New England city where this hallowed American institution sits. Instead, spin your globe and head to the old British redoubt of Fort St. George in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. This was where, in the late 17th century, a certain Elihu Yale made his fortune as a top official of the East India Company — riches that enabled him to eventually donate a carton of 32 books in 1718 to an obscure college he would never see across the oceans in colonial Connecticut. Those books, summarily sold in Boston for the kingly sum of £562, helped shore up the fledgling school that would take his name: Yale. What later became the training ground for five U.S. Presidents, myriad world leaders and generations of American cognoscenti (and, indeed, it was also this reporter’s alma mater) would not be what it is today, were it not for its ties with Asia.
Fast-forward almost three centuries and Yale’s connections to the East are once again dominating events on campus. A much discussed venture into Singapore proceeds apace: the Yale–National University of Singapore (NUS) College is set to open its doors to students in August 2013. Yale’s administrators have touted it as one of Asia’s first liberal-arts colleges, an institution that emphasizes “critical thinking and classroom interaction.” University President Richard Levin trumpeted last year: “Just as Yale shaped liberal-arts education in the U.S. in the 19th century, we believe the new Yale-NUS College can play a pivotal role in shaping the many liberal-arts colleges likely to be built in Asia in the coming decades.”
But there are some pronounced wrinkles in this happy narrative. A Wall Street Journal article from earlier this week quoted Pericles Lewis, the splendidly named Yale professor of English who will be Yale-NUS’s first president, admitting that students on the Singapore campus would not be able to stage political protests or form political parties. That acquiescence to Singapore’s laws regarding political assembly compelled New York–based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) to issue a statement on July 19 criticizing Yale for kowtowing to the city-state, which is bankrolling the venture. “Yale is betraying the spirit of the university as a center of open debate and protest by giving away the rights of its students,” said HRW’s deputy Asia director Phil Robertson.
Myriad American universities have set up their own satellite campuses and schools — often cash cows to rake in full tuition from well-heeled local elites — in countries with less-than-democratic political systems (New York University’s lavish campus in Abu Dhabi immediately comes to mind). But Yale’s stature and its own stated mission as a liberal-arts institution makes its compromise with Singapore awkwardly conspicuous. The HRW statement quotes Yale’s own policy on freedom of expression, which declares that the “primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge” and that to “fulfill this function, a free exchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well.”
No matter how Yale’s administrators and the boosters for the Singapore project spin it, Yale-NUS will not be able to allow a fully free exchange of ideas within its walls, nor does it seem likely that the enterprise will challenge the city-state’s decades-old authoritarianism. The Singaporean government wields its power with a velvet glove, ever eager to burnish its credentials as a stable, hospitable entrepôt for global finance and trade. It has in recent years aggressively tried to promote the city as a cultural hub of Asia, with ambitious (and rather excellent) new museums and plans to support the creation of a pan-Asian university on the site of Nalanda, India, where the ruins of a 1,500-year-old university still exists. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a political system where speech is censored, people are monitored, and dissent is discouraged.
The presence of Yale, argues critics of the project, essentially endorses the status quo. A Yale faculty resolution in April defined that status quo as one with a “history of lack of respect for civil and political rights.” Despite the objections of many of the professors, Levin has been undeterred; he shrugged his shoulders at the April resolution, arguing that it smacked of “moral superiority.” Other supporters of the project have adopted a similar line, insisting that they have no qualms settling for a liberal-arts education with Singaporean characteristics.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale and an outspoken critic of Yale-NUS, sees in the project a far greater, more worrisome shift, where the U.S.’s greatest academic institutions no longer produce students loyal to the values of a liberal-arts education as it once did, but instead a global technocratic elite “that no longer answers to any republican polity or moral code.” As legions of Yale seniors join the worldwide ranks of high finance every year, that’s a transformation that needs no Singapore satellite to come into fruition.
PHOTOS: Supertrees of Singapore