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Instructor of Canceled Yale-NUS Course Speaks Out

October 7, 2019
 
 

The would-be instructor of a canceled course at Yale-NUS College has spoken out to say he’s been scapegoated by Yale University in its zealousness to argue that the cancellation of the course on the topic of dissent at its jointly operated campus in Singapore did not raise academic freedom concerns.

A report on the course cancellation from Yale authored by the former founding president of Yale-NUS, Pericles Lewis, found that the college had legitimate academic and legal reasons for canceling the weeklong course, which was scheduled for late September/early October. In the report, Lewis cited concerns about academic rigor and about the possibility that participation in one of the course activities, a trip to Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park, could have put international students at risk of breaking Singapore’s laws on public assembly.

The instructor of the canceled course, Alfian Sa’at, said he had no problem with Yale-NUS canceling the course based on its own risk assessment or its assessment of its academic merit -- though he noted that "no issue regarding the program's lack of academic rigor had ever been raised with me." But he disputed the implications in the Yale report that he was unresponsive to suggestions for revisions to the course or unaware of legal risks.

In a series of posts on his Facebook page, Sa’at said he made numerous revisions to the course in response to administrators’ concerns. If they remained concerned about the legal risk of the external tour to the park, he wrote, they could simply have asked him to cancel it.

“Unfortunately, in their overzealousness to prove that academic freedom existed in Singapore, the admin decided that it was more credible (for them) to roll out a story about a rogue instructor who was uncooperative, made inadequate revisions, could not meet academic standards and who insisted on endangering their students,” Sa’at wrote.

While Lewis's report stated that the Yale-NUS curriculum committee had approved the course conditionally, pending revisions -- a fact confirmed to Inside Higher Ed by the chair of the curriculum committee -- Sa’at wrote that he was told the course had been “approved," with no mention of conditional approval. 

"The instructor has publicly released some of his communication with College staff," Lewis, who is also Yale's vice president and vice provost for global strategy, said in a statement. "This information does not affect my conclusions on academic freedom, which was the focus of my report, but I would like to clarify the following points. Administrative staff supporting the module poorly communicated the Curriculum Committee's requirements to the instructor, including the conditions that the Committee had outlined for proceeding with the module. That the instructor's video of August 13 mentioned the idea of 'simulating' a protest shows that he and the College had different risk assessments." (Sa'at said in his Facebook posts that after making changes to the course, "there was absolutely no mention of ‘simulating’ a protest any more after the meeting [with Yale-NUS staff] on 28 Aug.")

"Although he was willing to revise the syllabus, he and the College couldn't come to any final and timely agreement," Lewis said. "I have no reason to think he intended to break any laws, and he has of course been put in a very awkward position by the cancellation. My report recommended that the College shore up its relevant internal processes in the interest of preventing an unfortunate situation like this from occurring in the future."

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