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Yale, Singapore and the power of a university

The recent announcement of the president of Yale University to the effect that he will step down from his office next June, allegedly because of tension about the new Yale-branded college in Singapore, was a small tsunami in the world of academia – and raised a broader question: what role do universities have in today's society?

Josh Booth
4 October 2012

“Yale is betraying the spirit of the university”. A blunt statement from the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch issued in July got straight to the point. The infringement of rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly on Yale's proposed satellite campus in Singapore would prevent the university from fulfilling its explicit primary function: “to discover and disseminate knowledge”. For this, Yale's Policy on Freedom of Expression states, “a free exchange of ideas is necessary . . . the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

These core ideas of free dissemination and exchange have framed the controversy surrounding Yale's decision to set up a Singapore-based campus. From reading the reams of text written about its collaboration with the National University of Singapore to establish “Yale-NUS”, you might think Yale was about to settle a nineteenth-century commercial trading post. If the new venture is able to trade freely in ideas, there's a chance it will have some impact on Singaporean society; if not - if its discursive trade is curtailed by the state's draconian laws - we should think again about its worth (see Yang Rui, associate professor of education at the University of Hong Kong quoted here).

Despite protests from Yale academics the deal went ahead. But over the summer Richard Levin, the university's president, resigned. According to Jim Sleeper, a professor of political science at Yale, this was not just because faculty had kept up their opposition to the Singaporean venture. Courtship of the city-state had been only one project of a “parallel university” that had emerged over several years beyond the control of academic staff, driving a wedge between two rival ideas of the university.

The parallel university had pandered to commerce and power, seeking financial gain in programmes on national security that trained students in the self-censorship required to commit “countless foreign-policy and domestic blunders”. University administrators had laid on courses that brought in the students (and the money) but which gave them an inaccurate impression of how power was and could be wielded for the good. For a more realistic notion of the workings of power, these students would have been served better by the liberal arts education delivered by Yale's academics - at least according to Sleeper. Unfortunately these were precisely the people shut out of the parallel university's management. Levin's departure was a predictable result of their alienation.

Yet however much Yale's faculty disagree with its administrative staff about what a liberal arts education should be, the two rhetorical positions are really not that far apart: both seem to hold the free trade in ideas up as the model of higher education to be pursued, only one emphasises trade at the expense of freedom, and the other freedom at the expense of trade. It is the free trade in ideas that grants access to Oakeshott's “great conversation” of the humanities across the ages - and it is through the trickle-down of this great conversation to students and readers that the world will change. The comments released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in July suggest a similar understanding of academia's power.

HRW's statement fixed on an extremely important part of the university's spirit. But not the only part. By restricting themselves to this interpretation of a university's role, administrators, academics and commentators alike may be obstructing the opportunity to understand and wield power in a more focused way.  The idea that power can be exercised in the course of academic research, not just supported or undermined by the publications that emerge from it or catalysed by students' extra-curricular activities, tends to remain buried under conservative conceptions of the university. True to Oakeshott's politics, these are conceptions built on values that look to protect freedoms assumed to have been won already, rather than asking whether new good might be achieved by changing old models.   

Marx unsettles this comfortable position (and who better to antidote Oakeshott?). He warns that intellectuals “are in no way combating the real existing world when they are merely combating the phrases of this world”. Intellectuals, in this case the "Young Hegelians" who were the target of the Marx-Engels polemic The German Ideology, tend to invest phrases themselves with an undeserved power - a power whose magic distracts them from the real business of change. Change can be delivered with words, of course, but to achieve this requires recognition that “real intellectual wealth” amounts to the wealth of “real connections”. That ideas have power insofar as they are “directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men". Without being attentive to how ideas function in the context of this material activity, we will watch our words melt away.

When universities decide to set down roots they place themselves in the midst of men's material activity. They may seem like drifting airships only tethered to the ground by a thread, but universities are entangled with their environment. Rather than parachuting packaged qualifications and publications into a host state like conditional food aid, a university abroad has the capacity to take on the role of an embassy, employing diplomatic means to change its adoptive country. But academia has a tendency to reduce itself rhetorically to a trade in words and paper, squeezing out the subtle interweaving required for a more powerful role.

Yale-NUS's branding does promise something new - an “innovative curriculum” that “maximizes its location in Asia”, having been re-shaped and re-imagined for its new context - but the focus remains on the trade in ideas: the words exchanged in coffee shops or “over tea in a tree-shaded courtyard”. It sounds very pleasant. Still, there are hints of something more interesting here: the “extensive opportunities to learn and work away from the campus” and research projects conducted in collaboration with classmates and faculty mentors. If these opportunities are seized by the right faculty members, Yale-NUS could really make an impression on Singaporean life, pushing into the spaces where universities have in the past used their resources to exercise real power. 

There must be numerous examples of this power being exercised, even if they normally pass under the measuring instruments used to detect academic achievement. But here are just two addressing the kind of issues that HRW have brought up: the Human Rights Study Centre at Peking University Law School, whose researchers drafted legislation to protect Chinese citizens from torture and submitted it to the National People's Congress; and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, both an academic department and an NGO, established in the 1980s to help fight apartheid. The blurb on Yale-NUS's new site, though, is not particularly encouraging: there are no specifics here, no ideas from faculty for collaborations with civil society groups or NGOs; the brand still feels mired in a conservative interpretation of academia's worth.

This could change. A university's power is, or at least can be, exercised through so much more than the words spoken on its grounds and the texts that it publishes: it encompasses more than just the institution's success in trading ideas. A university can also create change through its core activities of research and learning and their interweaving with the “material activity and material intercourse of men” outside its walls.

Imagine, for instance, a Singapore-based, Yale-branded centre established to consider practically how to bridge the divide between universalist international law and countries' historical practices and traditions - not couched as a confrontation between “universal human rights” and regimes “intent on infringing” these rights in the Human Rights Watch vein, but couched in words that leave open the possibility of positive action. Imagine that this centre uses its research to incorporate the knowledge of, for instance, gay Singaporeans under threat of prosecution, but also those politicians more sympathetic to their cause. And imagine that through its research a coalition of different groups is brought together who might not otherwise have worked in collaboration. What is said in the centre's publications, what is discussed in its meetings and what its mission statement suggests may not be nearly as important as the partnerships and activities it promotes. 

Many would balk at the compromising words needed to get this venture off the ground, and many would read in them the end of the Yale brand. But this is the work of effective diplomacy, the science of placing the achievement of goals above ineffectual bluster, and a science that has always had to operate at a level deeper than words alone. Turning the positive actions of our imagined centre back into Yale's identity - mitigating the damaging force of our compromising words and demonstrating the worth of the actions they enable - would be difficult, but it would be worth it. Imagine how it could be done: at first, by using the example of similar centres run outside universities that have been particularly successful; later, by collecting the testimony of Singaporeans outside the walls of Yale-NUS - activists, academics, even politicians - who have noticed real change. It would be a difficult sell, but it might well be worth it: Yale could emerge stronger, the brand of conservative Singaporean politics weaker.

Yale's lunge towards Singapore happened, it seems, without a full attempt to address how it might entangle itself in Singapore's affairs while retaining the respectability of its identity and advancing its espoused aims. Addressing this would, of course, have required a deft piece of diplomacy. It would have required a sophisticated communications exercise, the building of alliances, the crafting of speeches, the making of distinctions and the refinement of values. Words would have been central to its success - though not words alone. But of course these are precisely the skills in which academics are trained.

Partly, perhaps principally, responsible for a split between administrative and academic staff throughout higher education is a dominant order of worth that exalts the power of words, of discourse, above all else. While this model persists, universities will continue to be pulled in two directions. They will remain divided into those who must value words if they value their career and those whose job it is to sell these words to students: those whose minds are fixed on publication and those responsible for herding students through the lecture theatre's doors. Unless students also value words above all else - which they seem increasingly unlikely to do - academics will fail to produce what they must to render the university financially sustainable. But if the academy's order of worth were more closely aligned with what students and society at large value, the two groups' aims might meet. The commercial advantage that Yale's administration has sought might be achieved more easily if the outputs of academic research were broader.  

We are still caught in the mode of “ideological” thinking that Marx identified - one entrenched by a dominant model of scholarly communication and evaluation focused on publication in peer-reviewed journals, and one that encourages notions of academic freedom to centre on the ability to publish freely. The problem with this system is not just that it shuts most people out from accessing academic research (with open access publication, this situation is in any case finally changing); it's also that it detracts hugely from work that has alternative, and perhaps more meaningful, outputs. Current attempts to sustain this system by incorporating proxy measures of impact fall short. Academics have begun to concern themselves with how much media coverage their work has achieved and whether it has been picked up by policymakers - essentially with how far and wide their words have been traded. But this is a long way off considering how research promotes a university's values and builds collaborations that are actually going to achieve something worthwhile.

Change is not impossible, especially with the type of external pressures being exerted on universities right now. In a difficult economic climate students may be more attracted to programmes that see them getting involved in projects whose outcomes are measured in more than just words; the tech startup culture is already challenging forms of education that have traditionally centred on narrowly discursive skills, attracting students to training that allows them to integrate ideas into entrepreneurship. If what is valued in academic research is changing, there is already an opening for academics themselves to start valuing what their work achieves rather than what it claims.

Of course one of the biggest obstacles to such a change is academia's incentive structure: career prospects are largely determined by how much academics publish and in which journals. But as tenured and even post-doctoral positions dry up this incentive structure may shift: it is no longer a sensible strategy for young researchers to devote themselves entirely to publication in journals or presentations at conferences that few, if any, outside academia will benefit from directly. They may need to look beyond academia for their incomes, to sectors where words are valued for the good they achieve rather than the distance they travel or the price they can be traded for.

A newly empowered academia may not be too much to ask for - even from the most traditional academic institutions. In reality the positions taken by both university administrations and academic staff are more subtle than represented here. There are those on both sides who recognise the power of the university to effect change outside the trade in ideas; and there are those who would not recognise any clear divide between administration and academic research in their own work. But rhetorically the conservative interpretation of academia still seems to be winning, even within organisations like Human Rights Watch. Now words intertwined with action are needed to pull academia out of its free-trade slumber and back into a position where its effects are meaningful, its values better-aligned with those outside its walls, and its future sustainable. Singapore might not be a bad place to start.

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