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A Call to Respect Rights

April 6, 2012

The Yale College faculty passed a resolution Thursday expressing concern about a partnership with the National University of Singapore -- voting for the measure even after President Richard Levin made a strong appeal that they not do so.

The resolution, penned by Professor Seyla Benhabib, asks the administration not to compromise Yale’s values on discrimination and academic freedom as it expands to Singapore. Benhabib did not return an e-mail requesting comment. Yale officials have said that the resolution was not needed.

Homosexuality is illegal in the prosperous Asian city-state, and free speech is limited. Some faculty members have campaigned against the partnership in recent weeks, saying it would damage Yale’s values to help run a college in such a place. Yale does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The final vote tally wasn’t immediately clear, though a source said it was a split vote that passed with a healthy majority among the 200 or so faculty members present. That source added that some faculty members sided with Levin and opposed the resolution.

“We, the Yale College Faculty, express our concern regarding the history of lack of respect for civil and political rights in the state of Singapore, host of Yale-National University of Singapore College,” the resolution reads.

“We urge Yale-NUS to respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers, and to uphold civil liberty and political freedom on campus and in the broader society. 

“These ideals lie at the heart of liberal arts education as well as our civic sense as citizens, and they ought not to be compromised.”

But the faculty might be too late. The deal was announced a year ago, though widespread faculty outrage didn’t surface until winter. Administrators are in place, faculty are being hired and students are being accepted to the college. Yale does not have a faculty senate, and professors were never formally asked for their opinion on the deal (although many believe they should have been).

The faculty passed an amended form of Benhabib’s original resolution. The first iteration would have called the partnership with Singapore “proposed.” In a last-minute vote, faculty eliminated that word from the statement, effectively acknowledging the inevitability of the Singapore collaboration.

Levin issued a statement after the vote complimenting the proceedings but taking issue with the end result.

“The debate at today’s meeting was substantive and civil, in the best tradition of our faculty,” he said. “Approximately 30 faculty members expressed a wide range of perspectives about the resolution. I value the engagement of my colleagues and their commitment to important principles, even though I opposed the resolution because it did not capture the mutual respect that has characterized the Yale-NUS collaboration from the beginning.”

Administrators have said there was no need to involve faculty in a formal way in the decision-making process because the Singapore campus will operate separately from the main Connecticut campus.

The institution will not grant Yale degrees, though Yale officials will play a major role in developing the academic program. The partnership will involve a new liberal arts campus designed to cater to the region’s top students. It will be the first foreign college to bear the Yale name.

Levin, who was the last person to speak before the vote, made a “sort of unexpected” plea to not pass the resolution, a faculty member said.

That faculty member, who supported the resolution, said the president stated his case “with grace.”

Faculty debated an amendment to the resolution that ultimately lost. "We urge Yale-NUS College to respect, protect and further the principles of non-discrimination for all, and to uphold civil liberty and political freedom. These ideas lie at the heart of a liberal arts education as well as of our civic sense as citizens," the defeated amendment read.

Another debate arose over whether to keep a reference to sexual minorities in the resolution. Faculty members decided to keep that language in place, a reference to the country’s anti-gay policies.

Charles Bailyn, an astronomy professor who will be dean of faculty at the Singapore campus, agreed in a phone interview with Inside Higher Ed that the debate was “cordial but divided.”

He spoke out against the resolution, saying he supported its basic tenets but found it “unnecessarily confrontational and somewhat disrespectful.” He said the resolution’s first sentence was especially rude.

Bailyn questioned the timing of the debate – a year after it was first announced and occurring now as faculty hires are made and students are accepted – and said he remains confident the project won’t compromise the university’s values. Singapore officials have expressed a willingness to discuss human rights issues in relation to the project.

“The principles of nondiscrimination and academic freedom," he said, "have been imbedded in this project from the beginning."

 

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