Both inside and outside of the Yale community, there has been lively debate about the decision to extend–for the first time–the Yale brand past the borders of picturesque New Haven. In cooperation with the National University of Singapore, Yale University will establish a satellite campus in Singapore. There will be residential colleges, dining halls, and Yale professors. But there will not be political protests or partisan political groups.
To be completely honest, my own opinion on this is not yet fully formed. On one hand, I support fully the administration’s attempt to extend Yale’s liberal arts education to other parts of the world, especially outside of the West. Although I am not naive enough to presume that this extension is unrelated to financial concerns, I do think that this is a worthwhile endeavor. In particular, I find the proposed East-West curriculum blend very intriguing. Moreover, I am unpersuaded by arguments that this campus will somehow tarnish the Yale brand. If anything, NYU-Abu Dhabi and other similar institutions notwithstanding, I think Yale is breaking new and unique ground with the Singapore campus.
On the other hand, as a staunch supporter of the liberal democratic principles upon which Yale and the United States were founded (lux et veritas, right?), I must admit that I find this latest bit of news quite disconcerting. The idea that Yale students, many of them political science majors, will be unable to express themselves freely in a political manner does not accord with these principles. And so, as a Yale University political scientist, I find myself conflicted.
In addition, I think another element of the debate merits mention. In many ways, the conversation about Yale’s Singapore campus mirrors the moral absolutism/cultural relativism debate at the core of modern liberal democracy. Consider the words of Professor Pericles Lewis, the president of the Singapore campus:
Yale-NUS students will be critical thinkers, yet remain respectful of Singapore’s cultural and societal norms. We hope [the college] will becoming the nexus of intellectual discussions in Singapore.
Professor Lewis concedes, implicitly, that some liberal values may be violated yet justifies such transgressions in the name of respect for Singapore’s “cultural and societal norms.” Opponents of the Singapore campus have been taking the moral absolutist stance, stating that the endeavor runs counter to the liberal democratic principles at the core of the Yale mission. Whatever the result of the debate–and it seems as if progress on the campus is all but unstoppable at this point–it is worthwhile to consider it within this broader context.
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