In their race to go global, American colleges are ignoring the roots of liberal education
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."
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.
Levin's intentions (or Yale's; one uses the terms interchangeably) are more than about prestige, of course. Universities are here to address the world's problems, a line I heard often enough in my two years, from 2008 to 2010, as something of a clerk in the Harvard president's office. Just recently Drew Faust addressed her commencement audience with these words: "Universities are critical resources in addressing issues from economic growth to global health, to sustainable cities, to privacy and security, to therapeutics," putting a timeline on her efforts that dates nicely to the beginning of her term in office: "In these past four years, Harvard has reached into the world, and the world has reached into Harvard as never before."
While Faust's words align with much of what Levin has said over the past decade, Harvard has moved modestly. Building the university's future in the Boston neighborhood of Allston, just across the river from Cambridge, has been a fraught and tempering experience for a rich, famous university; one wonders if Yale has paid sufficient attention to this example as it looks halfway around the globe. "Doing good for the world is what Yale does" is Levin's line from a recent magazine interview. But Levin's posture, which some might describe as optimistic or forward-looking, can equally be seen as defensive, born of a fear of being overtaken then left behind. When "given opportunities to lead" (quoting Yale's prospectus), the assumption is that one must take them. But leadership can also mean not taking those opportunities, showing restraint and husbanding resources closer to home.
The 1828 pioneers were robust. They knew where they came from. And that meant distancing themselves from their European university forebears. There was much that was fine about "the Universities on the continent of Europe, especially in Germany," they wrote, and yet, they added, "we doubt whether they are models to be copied in every feature by our American colleges." They realized that anything borrowed from Europe had to be adapted in bits and pieces, "such parts of their plans as are suited to our peculiar situation and character." Worried about the "mortification of a ludicrous attempt" at imitation, these early professors underpinned pedagogy with ideas about their country, land, government and society in ways that seem quite absent with the modern empire-builders of academe.
Truly, the responsibility for creating great Asian universities lies with Asian countries themselves. The rootlessness of the entire Yale-NUS project can be seen from its origins: as a creation, literally, of Davos, where according to the Yale Alumni Magazine it was conceived, over tea, between the two university presidents, Levin of Yale and Tan Chorh Chuan of NUS. From January 2009 to April 2011 -- a lightning-fast project for academia, but not for authoritarian states like Singapore or China, where as we know grands projets crop up in the blink of an eye. Good for them.
But setting the right conditions for academic freedom to flourish is something Singapore and other nations must do on their own. NYU, Yale, and the others can't do it for them, any more than U.S. military advisors have been able to create a foreign fighting force fit for a democracy in countries that lack democratic values. As Mark Oppenheimer has written, if you want liberal education, "Actually, it's not that hard.... Just change your laws to allow complete freedom of expression." And so let Singapore build a university Singapore Airlines can be proud of.
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