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."
But what becomes clear from reading David B. Potts' annotated edition of the Report (Liberal Education for a Land of Colleges, Palgrave Macmillan 2010) is that those Yale pioneers were, even then, perceived by some as hidebound in their conception of liberal education. The Report, trumpeting classical languages, contains an implied attack on the founders of Amherst College who, in their own 1827 reports, developed a more exciting, modern pedagogy with plenty of the ancients but also Voltaire, LaFontaine, Schlegel, Locke, Spanish-language writers, and modern mathematicians (not Newton, but Leibniz). Yale gives itself too much credit. Levin's claim that the Report "defined for a young nation the type of education that it hoped would be provided for the nation's future leaders" is self praise that should really shared with numerous institutions, each with its own distinct vision.
Critics of Yale's Singapore scheme, who include Yale lecturer Mark Oppenheimer, Yale professor Christopher Miller, and, 10 months ago, myself, have tended to seize on the lack of political and personal (and thereby, academic) freedom in Singapore as reasons for our discontent. But my guess is that it is equally the intellectual vacuity of the program that bothers so many of us. From Rick Levin's aforementioned foundational report of 2005 to his April speech in Singapore, the emphasis has been solely on Yale's strategic positioning and administrative programs, appointments and gestures that make Yale better known worldwide. These are networking rather than policy documents, from a corporate leader who sees new markets, new projects, and new collaborators. Levin freely cites the Report, yet without submitting or writing anything like the Report: a reflective, cerebral essay that might satisfy his academic critics that there are, indeed, sound intellectual reasons for Yale's giving so much of itself to one foreign site.