Yale report of fact-finding mission says Yale-NUS had legitimate reasons to cancel course on dissent

However, the report noted numerous errors that were made in the lead-up to the cancellation.

Andrew Koay | September 30, 2019, 08:07 PM

Yale University has released its findings regarding the cancellation of a controversial course by Yale-NUS College.

The 11-page report was compiled by Yale's Vice President and Vice Provost for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis.

The report found that the decision to cancel a module titled "Dialogue and Dissent in Singapore" was "made internally and without government interference in the academic independence of the College".

The module was eventually cancelled on Sep. 13, two weeks before it was scheduled to start.

During his time in Singapore  (from Sep. 19 to 21, 2019), Lewis interviewed 25 Yale-NUS staff and faculty members as well as playwright Alfian Sa'at — the instructor who was meant to lead the course.

Lewis also met briefly with a senior Ministry of Education (MOE) official and emphasized the importance of academic freedom, but he did not interview her or any other government officials as part of this fact-finding.

In a statement released in conjunction with the report, Yale president Peter Salovey expressed satisfaction with the academic freedom exhibited by Yale-NUS.

"My review of Professor Lewis’s report, my conversations with the Yale-NUS College leadership and Governing Board, and the advice of the Yale Faculty Advisory Committee have reassured me of Yale-NUS’s strong commitment to academic freedom."

Errors in the lead up to the cancellation

Detailing the events that led up to the module's cancellation, Lewis — who was the founding president of Yale-NUS — noted that there were a number of errors, mostly administrative, that were made in the process of considering the module.

The errors centred on concerns over the legal risks posed to students associated with a planned simulation of a protest in Hong Lim Park.

The report found that the concerns were raised at various points after the module was first proposed on May 28, 2019.

Throughout June and July, the college maintained contact with Alfian, while noting that it found him difficult to reach by email.

However, a mistake was made in announcing the module as part of a "Week Seven Fair" on August 14, despite the fact that a final syllabus had yet to be approved.

Attempts by the college and Alfian to revise the curriculum to mitigate the legal risk and shore up modules academic rigour were ultimately deemed unsatisfactory.

The last revision was submitted on Sep. 5, but staff continued to express their concerns about the academic rigour of the module and the risks for international students.

College staff then asked Alfian for a meeting, but were informed that it would have to wait another week as he was going to be overseas.

Making the decision to cancel the module

Staff then told Yale-NUS president Tan Tai Yong that they were considering cancelling the module.

Tan reached out a Ministry of Education (MOE) official who serves on the Yale-NUS Governing Board to see if the Ministry could interview with police in order to ensure that students would not be arrested if they went to Hong Lim Park.

The ministry official said that she did not have authority over the police.

Following further discussions between Yale University, Yale-NUS announced the decision to cancel the module on Sep. 13.

Lewis noted his fact-finding mission had found that the college had "articulated legitimate academic and legal reasons to cancel the module".

"But that the administrative errors leading to its announcement and subsequent withdrawal might lead a reasonable person to wonder about the effectiveness of the College’s efforts."

Lewis also said that the Curriculum Committee should have been involved more throughout the inception and revision of the module, while the legal risk assessment should have taken place sooner.

He added that Alfian should have been given a clearer explanation sooner of the inadequacy of the materials he submitted.

Nevertheless, Salovey expressed his pleasure with the college's progress so far:

"I myself have observed over my eight years of involvement with Yale-NUS College that it has become a model of innovation in liberal arts education in Asia. I am proud of Yale’s involvement with Yale-NUS and would like to express my confidence in its faculty and leadership."

Top image from Yale University and Yale-NUS websites