A decision made by Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) not to grant tenure to Dr. Cherian George, an associate professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), has taken on additional significance. Academics, civil society members and students from both Singapore and abroad have strongly criticized the decision, pointing towards wider implications for academic freedom in the country.
A respected lecturer, George is also one of Singapore’s most prominent public intellectuals. He often comments on issues of press control, censorship and Singapore’s blogosphere. George has also been critical of the government’s methods of dealing with the press and the Internet.
The rejection of his application for tenure – his second attempt after an application in 2009 was rejected – means that his contract with NTU will expire within the next year.
The university has described the tenure review process as a peer-driven academic exercise. However, Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University, an external reviewer for Dr. George’s application, strongly criticized the decision.
“Cherian George not getting tenure at NTU is an outrage – I was one of the tenure case reviewers and it was so clear that he is a superstar,” she tweeted.
A number of other academics supported Wahl-Jorgensen’s comment. Kris Olds, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote for Inside Higher Ed: “While I've never met [Dr George] I can state, with confidence, he would have been tenured here at UW-Madison. Indeed, given his record and in demand areas of expertise matched with actual experience as a journalist, he'd most likely be a tenured full Professor by now.“
Dr. Benjamin Hill Detenber, chair of WKWSCI, also revealed in a meeting with students that the school had endorsed Dr George’s application both times. The rejection decision had been made at higher levels within the university.
The situation has galvanized students and academics in Singapore. A student-led petition, highlighting Dr. George’s excellence in teaching, has garnered 962 signatures (at the time of writing). Notable academics and thinkers have also co-written a letter questioning the impact of NTU’s tenure criteria on Singaporean society.
“Social transition in the next decades will bring robust public debate among an increasingly diverse populace,” the letter reads. “Promotion and tenure criteria that do not appear to value public engagement will discourage academics from speaking up.”
The outcry has now spread beyond Singapore’s shores, with concerns also being raised about potential collaborations between Singaporean and overseas institutions.
“[P]erhaps we need a kind of international ’fair trade’ program for academics. No universities with reasonable promotion and labor practices should make deals with universities that don't have reasonable promotion and labor practices,” Dr. Philip Howard, professor of communication, information and international studies at the University of Washington, writes on TechPresident.
A statement signed by concerned individuals in the United States expressed a similar sentiment: “This situation creates the impression that the principles of academic freedom held in common by our fields have not been upheld at NTU. As a group of international peers in the study of the Internet and society, it is our conclusion that factors external to the peer evaluation of research and teaching may have improperly influenced the tenure decision for Prof. George. … Until this is clarified we strongly caution our colleagues working in the area of Internet and society in any dealings with Singaporean universities.”
In light of the widespread criticism of NTU and outpouring of support for Dr. George, what looked like a fairly ordinary occurrence – the denial of tenure to an academic – has snowballed to highlight wider issues in Singapore. This rejection, seen by many as the result of political considerations, recalls the controversy that surrounded the opening of the Yale-NUS (National University of Singapore) liberal arts college late last year. It also raises questions about efforts to stem the “brain drain.”
The dismissal of Dr. George has Singaporeans hotly debating the issue of academic freedom once again. Are the policies of the country’s institutions in line with attempts to retain Singapore’s best talents?
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.