Why Is Yale Outsourcing a Campus to Singapore?

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In their race to go global, American colleges are ignoring the roots of liberal education

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Ministry of Education, Singapore

"Just as Singapore Airlines now sets the standard for air travel worldwide, Yale-NUS College aspires to influence the shape of undergraduate education throughout Asia." -- Richard Levin, President, Yale University

So it has come to this: Rick Levin, president of one of America's great universities, hopes to build a college that will enjoy the reputation of Singapore Airlines, which many of us remember from National Geographic ads featuring comely stewardesses beneath the legend "Singapore Girl, You're a Great Way to Fly!" The occasion, on April 11, was the formal announcement in Singapore of Yale-NUS, where NUS is the National University of Singapore, Yale's partner in a proposed new liberal arts college that will admit its first students in 2013. The intellectual direction for this endeavor will come from Yale, but Singapore will pay the bill -- a selling point to Yale administrators keen to show the low-risk (because no-cost) nature of the enterprise.

But the costs to Yale are huge, in the time and attention of senior administrators like the president and provost who have a campus to run in New Haven, not to mention the staff and faculty who have worked on this project at the expense of Yale issues and Yale students. But perhaps it is worth it to create the luxury brand of Asian colleges? Lux et Veritas et Singapore Airlines.

Levin's banal remark, quite likely drafted in the well-stocked first-class cabin of a Singapore Airlines flight en route to the announcement, echoes what we have come to expect from universities run by economists and others in thrall to the internationalization of U.S. higher education -- the notion that campuses in usually authoritarian states (e.g. the United Arab Emirates, China, and Singapore) are necessary to "compete" or "stay relevant" or "embrace the future." For New York University's President John Sexton, the phrase of choice is "the global network university." The original Washington Square campus is only one component of this burgeoning institution: NYU is building degree-granting campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, establishing Sexton as chief empire-builder of them all.

Designs of this kind are expensive, except when paid for by supplicants. Buried within NYU Abu Dhabi's 39-question FAQ (beneath question 38) is a single sentence: "The government of Abu Dhabi addresses all of the costs associated with the NYU Abu Dhabi campus." Yale's September 2010 Singapore prospectus, created for faculty by Levin and his provost, Peter Salovey, reveals more: Yale-NUS will "reimburse Yale for all expenses, including compensation to departments and programs for replacing the teaching of Yale faculty who are actively involved in the initial planning. ... Similarly, NUS would cover the salaries of Yale faculty who spend time teaching in Singapore, releasing funds to support their departments or programs at Yale."

No reasonable person should believe that Yale is in this to make money. Yet the effect is that the world's second richest university gains a foreign subsidy for an internationalism program that, according to a 2005 document, includes a domestic purpose: "to remain at parity with, or move ahead of, other leading institutions with which we compete for students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty."

Yale's expression of its international ambitions, from the same paper, is contained in the term "Global University of Consequence." It's a phrase that sounds rather like Sexton's, but far more self-regarding. What is always distinctive about Yale's rhetoric is its exceptionalism: the notion (rather like the global outlook of George W. Bush, Yale '68) that Americans are bringing something ennobling and civilized to places that can't get it without us. 

Yale's public documents on this subject all begin with this premise. The aforementioned prospectus puts it as follows: "Creating an entirely new liberal arts college in Asia would allow Yale to extend to other parts of the world its long tradition of leadership in shaping liberal education." Even Levin's brief April 2011 speech revealed Yale as particularly self-involved. More than half of his speech was dedicated to five passages, each beginning with the refrain "This is a momentous day for Yale." Only near the end -- right after the bit about Singapore Airlines -- was the Asian audience told this would be "a momentous day" for them, too. 

What reasons does Levin offer for this momentousness -- beyond the discovery that Singapore and NUS present "a partner worthy of and committed to this ambitious undertaking"? He begins his speech by looking back to 1828, when university officials published The Yale Report, an argument for liberal education that set the course for many new colleges then arising across the young United States. (The 2010 prospectus reminds faculty that Yale graduates promoted the Report's ideas "as founders or first presidents" of dozens of institutions, "including Princeton, Columbia, Williams, Swarthmore, and Dartmouth, and Middlebury.") Through Yale-NUS, Levin declared in his speech, the university would have "an opportunity to influence the course of 21st century education in Singapore and Asia, much as we did in our own country during the 19th century."

Even as some Yale graduates might be embarrassed by Yale's boasting, we might quietly concede that we agree with large parts of it. But is Yale, or any comparable institution, a church, and is Yale's mission consistent with foreign proselytizing? The Yale mission statement is ambiguous on this point, but it does include a commitment to "create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge." Extrapolating from its history, Yale now declares its right and destiny to seed the world with liberal arts colleges. Levin holds up for general admiration that 1828 Report, just as in his and Salovey's prospectus he reminds faculty that "Yale is widely recognized as leading the nation in the conceptualization of liberal education in the early 19th century." 

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Eric Weinberger taught writing at Harvard from 1999 to 2007, and has published book reviews, travel articles, and essays for leading U.S. and British newspapers and magazines. His fiction and narrative nonfiction have appeared in several literary journals. He grew up in The Hague and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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