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Will Academic Freedom Be Protected at Yale's New College in Singapore?

The current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine includes an unusual column by its editor bemoaning the lack of debate—or even interest—regarding Yale’s September announcement that it was in serious discussion with the National University of Singapore about creating a liberal arts college, based on the American model, to be called Yale-NUS. The media, the blogosphere, the alumni, even the faculty: All are quiet, the editor writes. “One would expect a little more engagement, a little more curiosity—especially when the topic is as monumental in Yale’s history as the founding of a college in Asia.”

As an alumnus, I agree. Consider the case of Alan Shadrake, a British journalist facing jail for a book with the cheeky title and (to Singaporean ears) deeply offensive subtitle of “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock.” It is a well-reported if repetitive and unevenly argued amateur’s indictment of Singaporean justice as corrupt and biased, focused on Singapore’s deeply troubling use of the death penalty, by hanging, for drug traffickers. Shadrake’s offenses, for which he was jailed before trial (he was subsequently bailed), are criminal defamation (a pending case) and contempt of court (convicted and sentenced to six weeks in jail plus a fine, now under appeal), for having “cast doubt on the impartiality and independence of the judiciary.” With a book that almost no one has read, he has scandalized Singapore.

Yale knows about Alan Shadrake, and even incorporated his case into its nine-page prospectus to faculty regarding the Yale-NUS project, although without bothering to name him. “We were greatly concerned” by his arrest, Yale notes, mentioning numerous consultations with Singaporean attorneys, American academics, including officials from universities like NYU that have programs in Singapore, and its own faculty committees. Yale appears pleased by its findings and, together with its Singaporean partners, plans to issue a statement upholding academic freedom in the Final Agreement (when and if one comes) declaring that “faculty and students in the College will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the College.”

But one wonders who will judge a given work’s “scholarly and professional standards,” language that could reasonably include Singapore’s courts. Yale notes explicitly that “regulations of the College” will “include the prohibition of defamatory language concerning race or religion,” a hate-speech policy that Yale itself does not have in the United States. So does that mean a liberal arts professor at Yale-NUS who does research in politics or sociology presenting what may seem odious comparisons on race or religion—a Charles Murray, perhaps, whose book The Bell Curve touched on forbidden thoughts—is to be sanctioned, first by the College and perhaps too by Singapore, which might jail him?

Shadrake’s book, while published by a scholarly press in Malaysia, is not a scholarly work—its claims not sufficiently tested by rigorous analysis or supported fully by documented evidence. But not all scholars publish scholarship exclusively; polemics and journalism are equally part of their repertoire, as we know from Alan Dershowitz, Tony Judt, Garry Wills, and Cornel West, among others. And not all teachers in a liberal arts college are scholars.

If Yale-NUS has a writing program, like Yale’s or the one at Harvard College, where I spent eight years teaching, its faculty will likely include journalists and other writers, who may be tempted during their time in Singapore to cast an eye on the stories available locally, which could certainly include authoritarian government and a harsh criminal justice system. As Orwell wrote in his essay “The Prevention of Literature,” “even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.” What else is scholarship but following up on the first thought, and the next one?

The non-scholar Paul Theroux taught at what is now NUS in the 1960s, a place he hated, and ever since has written about in terms that, under Singaporean law, are probably actionable. Yale’s leaders are dreaming if they think the boundary between scholarship and journalism, between the classroom and the coffee shop (or street) is impregnable. In an alumni magazine interview, Yale President Rick Levin honestly acknowledges a problem, but offers up hope that “a full orientation,” for faculty and students, will “ensure that they know the rules” and thus solve that problem; as orientations so often do. But good scholars break rules in pursuing questions, one after the other, and, if Yale must find itself having to contain answers in Singapore, the real taint will be in New Haven.

Eric Weinberger has been a contributor to The New York Times, The Boston Globe and