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Faculty Gives Yale a Dose of Dissent Over Singapore

Yale announced a year ago that it was creating the “first new college to bear the Yale name in 300 years” at the National University of Singapore, and last week, after reviewing 2,500 applications, it sent out the first handful of faculty job offers for Yale-N.U.S. College.

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So it is distinctly awkward timing that members of the Yale College faculty, which never voted on the plan, are now raising concerns about joining their storied institution with an autocratic city-state where drug offenses can bring the death penalty, homosexual relations are illegal and defamation is a criminal charge.

On campus, there is a whiff of a Yale Spring, a slow awakening — at a university with no faculty senate — to faculty discontent. Many Yale professors are unhappy about the absence of a vote on the Singapore project, while some go further and attack it as a dangerous collaboration with a government that does not support the broad freedoms they believe are central to liberal arts education.

“The faculty is feeling disempowered, that it has no voice in what is going on,” said Seyla Benhabib, a political science professor.

Richard C. Levin, the university’s president, said the faculty had no vote on the project because it would not affect the college. It was approved by the Yale Corporation, the governing board. Yale officials take pains to explain that Yale-N.U.S., which will be paid for entirely by Singapore, will not be Yale but a distinct institution with its own president and its own diploma.

Of course, some faculty support the project, and some are deeply involved in it: Charles Bailyn, an astronomy professor, will be the dean of Yale-N.U.S. when the first 150 students arrive next year, and other professors helped develop the plan and are working on hiring.

At last month’s faculty meeting, about 150 professors, an unusually high turnout, debated Professor Benhabib’s resolution calling for a formal commitment to broad freedoms. A vote was postponed until the next meeting, this Thursday evening, when an even larger turnout is expected, along with an attempt to amend the resolution to include a statement of support for the project.

With the globalization of higher education, such delicate cross-cultural partnerships are increasingly common. In fact, the National University of Singapore already has, among other collaborations, a medical school venture with Duke, a partnership with Johns Hopkins’ conservatory and a New York University Law School master’s program.

New York University has a liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi and is starting another in Shanghai, each offering the same degree granted in New York. Yale has been unwilling to grant its own degree abroad, either in Singapore or at an arts institute in Abu Dhabi under discussion five years ago.

The Yale administration says the faculty has had ample opportunities to weigh in since the September 2010 prospectus outlining the Singapore project, including two poorly attended town-hall-style meetings.

But many professors said they had paid little attention early on, assuming the project would come to a vote.

“I was stunned by the announcement that we’d hooked up with this university,” said Mimi Yiengpruksawan, an art history professor. “My first question was, ‘Who’s “we” — and why are “we” involved in developing a campus paid for by a national government that is not the United States?’ ”

Even apart from Singapore, there had been mounting faculty discontent about university decisions on the budget, the graduate school and shared services. The complaints coalesced this winter at a gathering at the home of an English professor, where 20 senior faculty members discussed their frustrations.

Now the Singapore debate is heated, with a stream of commentary from students, faculty and alumni — including, this week, a glowing vote of confidence in a sophisticated model of education blending East and West by Fareed Zakaria, a Yale trustee, and a blistering attack calling Yale’s plan “poorly informed, reckless and sultanistic” by Michael Montesano, an alumnus in Singapore.

The resolution creating all the buzz is rather mild, expressing “concern regarding the recent history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore,” and urging Yale-N.U.S. “to respect, protect and further principles of nondiscrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers; to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society,” ideals “at the heart of liberal arts education.”

Professor Bailyn, who radiates enthusiasm about the chance to design a new college, is uncomfortable with the resolution, worrying about the implied “us versus them” attitude of faculty members “at a safe distance of 9,000 miles, telling Singaporeans how to live.”

Furthermore, he said, the timing could hardly be more awkward: “It could have been a huge conversation a year ago, before we actually signed the agreement. Now we’re right in the middle of making faculty offers.”

Timing aside, faculty supporters say, the resolution is important both symbolically, to support civil liberties, and practically, to bolster the faculty voice.

“Thursday will be the first vote ever taken on anything related to Singapore,” said Christopher L. Miller, a professor of French who is gay. “It would be a very positive step, saying that the Yale College faculty is taking back some ownership of the issue, but it’s only the first step.”

Plenty of questions remain, faculty members said, about what the agreement between Singapore and Yale contains, how it would work and what made Yale choose Singapore.

Some Yale trustees have long ties to Singapore. In recent years, three have held important positions at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, which handles Singapore’s more than $100 billion in assets, or at Temasek Holdings, which the Finance Ministry owns. As those ties have become known, some on the faculty have expressed frustration that Yale has not been forthcoming about them.

In an interview Sunday, Mr. Levin said there was no impropriety. “Two of the three individuals with connections to Singapore were not serving as Yale trustees at the time the agreement was under discussion, and the third recused himself from voting,” he said.

Specifically, he said, Charles Ellis, the husband of the Yale vice president Linda Lorimer, retired from the Yale Corporation in 2008, before the discussions began, and retired as an adviser to the Singapore corporation in June 2009, when the talks were under way. Charles W. Goodyear, who was Temasek’s chief executive-designate from March until August 2009, did not become a Yale trustee until after the Yale-Singapore agreement was signed. And G. Leonard Baker, a Yale trustee and leading fund-raiser since 2000, who served on the board of a subsidiary of the Singapore corporation from 2001 to 2011 and held other Singapore advisory positions, reported them on his annual disclosure forms. Mr. Levin said Mr. Baker had recused himself from voting on the agreement.

Mr. Levin said it had not occurred to him to disclose Mr. Baker’s recusal. In a statement Sunday night, Mr. Levin said a review of Yale’s online information had revealed that Mr. Goodyear’s and Mr. Baker’s Singapore involvements were not in their biographical summaries, an omission that has been corrected.

Mr. Levin first considered the project, which he called one of the most exciting of his long presidency, at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There, he had tea with the president of N.U.S., who had previously sought a liberal arts collaboration with Britain’s University of Warwick and California’s Claremont Colleges.

If the collaboration hits some bumps, Mr. Levin said, they may be smoothed by a governance committee, with equal representation from both universities, that will advise the Yale-N.U.S. president on conflicts of values or principles.

The prospectus includes negotiated language promising that faculty and students at the new college “will be free to conduct scholarship and research and publish the results, and to teach in the classroom and express themselves on campus, bearing in mind the need to act in accordance with accepted scholarly and professional standards and the regulations of the college.” It also says the new college’s nondiscrimination policy will be “fully consistent” with Yale’s.

Still, Michael J. Fischer, a computer science professor, has urged Yale to pull back. “I ask that the Yale name be removed from the new college, that the Yale administration make clear to all that Yale’s role in Yale-N.U.S. is only as consultants and that the Yale collegium has no control, responsibility or affiliation with Yale N.U.S.,” he wrote in The Yale Daily News.

In Singapore, an article in an independent student newspaper criticized Yale professors as trading in stereotypes — and suggested that if Americans obsess about the illegality of homosexuality, Singaporeans might obsess about Guantánamo Bay and “dubious ‘antiterrorism’ laws.”

The Yale Daily News offered a measured view: “The truth remains that Yale will henceforth be closely linked with an authoritarian regime, and the university will have to find a way to balance partnership and pushback.”

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