Yale-Singapore, Conflicting Values, and Cultural Relativism

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.

For more of his brave yet flawed attempts at political theory, follow William on Twitter.


2 thoughts on “Yale-Singapore, Conflicting Values, and Cultural Relativism

  1. On the forefront of the protest against the opening of Yale-NUS is Professor James Scott, one of our resident South-East Asianists focused on state-society relations, and leading rock star of Political Science and anthropology. His criticism is precisely the lack of freedoms created by the political regime – he asserts that Yale should raise its standards and have some self respect. However, the alternative he proposes is a partnership with Bir Zeit University, the leading academic institution in the occupied West Bank. As noble as the idea sounds, I am not entirely sure how Professor Scott justifies his desire for a partnership with the Palestinians against his criticisms of repression, especially in light of recent reports accusing the PA of arbitrary arrest and torture (not to mention the Israeli government’s conduct). There is a major question mark surrounding the potential for freer discourse in a place like Bir Zeit.

    Ultimately, I believe that it is best to view Yale’s expansion to Singapore, not from the perspective of its potential contributions of academia or the advancement of educational opportunities abroad, but from the perspective referred to locally as “Yale Inc.” or what I would call more broadly the corporatization of the American university. Another striking example, coming from my continued affiliation with Emory University, was Emory President James Wagner’s decision to freeze hiring and cut half the PE department in order to ensure there would be enough room to give himself a raise – he now makes over $2 million a year and tuition continues to rise steeply. This is a natural and expected consequence of a society that increasingly fetishizes the morality of the amoral free market. This puts Yale’s decision to open its first overseas campus in the polity ranked 3rd overall on GDP/Capita into a bit of perspective.

    While the Yale-NUS debate certainly engages noble and academically vital issues such as freedom of expression and respect for dissenting values, in order to more effectively debate the merits of such a program we need to consider a wider range of motivations affecting the decision making of an administration whose decisions have been recognized as reflecting a “for-profit” business model. For better or worse, Yale is already a global brand. The administration must recognize that this reputation comes from an ability to maintain a high level of academic integrity. Yale must strive to remember that the money must be used to facilitate this reputation for excellence, and not the other way around.

  2. A viewpoint from someone who wrote the following:-

    “I don’t see why we need to have a partnership with an institution that has produced the talents who… have morally and financially bankrupted their once great nation. Your nation’s economy is in a depression as your central bank robs the general population with its easy money policies transferring more wealth to the bankers. Your political parties are both bought and paid for. Your men and women are sent to die in senseless wars to protect the reserve currency status of the petrodollar. Before this decade is through the Treasury market will be in free fall and so will the dollar along with your living standards.

    “Call us authoritarian all you want but we are a prudent state while yours is a once great nation that is a banana republic on its way to fascism. And your nation owes us and other authoritarian regimes A LOT of money. All made possible in part by the notables graduates of Yale and other Ivies.

    “I suggest that debt slaves adopt a more courteous attitude toward their creditors instead of name calling and stereotyping. Btw Feel free to come grovel for a job once this comes to pass.”

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