COMMENT: No lawyers please, we’re academics

The Central Library at NUS. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

So my employer is in the news. It’s going to be tough for me to say anything. If I write something that sounds like praise or support, I risk flak for toadying to the paymaster. But say anything critical and I risk getting gagged – or worse. Just to clarify, my employer is the National University of Singapore, where I am a part-time lecturer with the Communications and New Media Department.

So, of course, I have been following the news reports about the university closely. I wasn’t surprised that TODAY got wind of the departures of academics from the department I work in. After all, it IS the communications department and can be expected to be “leaky”. (I am NOT the leak). It had a high-profile head in Professor Mohan Dutta who made the news when he had to postpone a university talk by Dr Cherian George, a former Nanyang Technological University lecturer now teaching in Hong Kong.

When Prof Mohan left the university last June, some people put two and two together and came up with five; that he was somehow told to go because he was “politically incorrect” in inviting a “politically incorrect” academic. This, despite how word of his resignation had been floating around for at least a year and academics were asked about their choice of head should one be selected from among faculty.

So, much was made of “eight departures in eight months”, with the reason given as “differences” with the new head, Prof Audrey Yue. You can read the report here. I couldn’t figure out the “differences” because five left before she became the head, and she hadn’t even been around the whole semester; she was on sabbatical. Perhaps, the “differences” stemmed from not wishing to report to a professor who had only recently returned to Singapore? Prof Yue, a Singaporean, joined the university just the year before. But that can’t be, since it is normal for academics of calibre, whether local or foreign, to parachute into leadership positions.

I also found it odd that the report only featured academics who had left, and not anyone who stayed who could give another view of the departures. Still, eight resignations (for whatever reason) out of a faculty of 32 members is quite a lot. Some re-shuffling of duties and classes had to happen. And it didn’t help that Prof Yue had decided to embark on a curriculum review that was to take effect in the following academic year.

Personally, I had always thought there were too many overlapping or “inactive” subjects (what we call modules) in the department and some don’t seem structured to allow a student to advance academically during their four-year degree course. In other words, the store of knowledge or skill isn’t being widened or deepened, it just gets battered again and again (my words). You look at the titles of what is on offer in the curriculum and you wonder if there can be a lot of difference learning about both Governance and New Media and Media and Communications Regulation, for example.

I was glad that the review was being done, although I too have been a victim of some breakdown in communications (ironic I know since we are in the communications business!) I thought that one of my subjects was being scrapped when it was only being deferred. I suppose if this was just another company, internal screw-ups in communications wouldn’t be newsworthy. But there was the impression that undergraduates were being left “stranded”, bereft of lecturers and subjects to take up.

Of course, there was some confusion over the number of modules offered, dropped and so forth, simply because nothing had been decided nor approved yet by the higher-ups. Perhaps, Prof Yue should have made the review process public for both faculty and students, but then again, that would risk unnecessary panic among staffers who think they wouldn’t have a job and among students who have an eye on certain modules for their later classes.

I guess I sound far too sympathetic now, correct?

So let’s change the topic.

I was surprised to read the longer article in TODAY on Jan 6 about why academics teaching arts and humanities subjects quit or don’t stay for long. It seemed quite a stretch to go from a department in a faculty to maligning two universities for being focused on chasing rankings. Was there really an exodus of academics? There aren’t any hard numbers and the universities themselves were stingy with info. So we have to take the universities’ word that turnover rates were “not high”.

Academics who left the university, and Singapore, sounded so angry in the interviews. Very unfavourable mention was made of the Provost. So it is no surprise that the university authorities were upset. But what was a surprise was that it mounted a “legal challenge” which resulted in the article being “taken down”.

I re-read the article (I had it printed earlier) for signs of defamatory content, but concluded that the academics were expressing their opinion based on their experience in the university. Is this a quarrel over facts? Or merely academics holding a different opinion from the university authorities about the sort of weight that was being put on research or teaching? Was the problem a systemic one or were they just unhappy that the university didn’t think their work was up to scratch? Was the net cast wide enough to come to the conclusion that both universities were focused on rankings?

One thing that I thought might have crossed the line was what an unnamed academic said about the Provost’s “haphazard approach of gaming various ranking systems”.

Of course, on the whole, the universities didn’t come off well based on those interviews with five named academics, and I am not sure how many un-named ones. NUS is a well-regarded university, and to have its reputation attacked would have repercussions on staff, students and others thinking of joining the university in some capacity or other. I, for one, would expect the university to respond vigorously.

There are many ways a newsmaker can respond to accusations made by people which are published in the media. He can point out factual inaccuracies. He can ask for the right of reply. He can engage in a good old fashioned debate on why the article was unfair. He can trot out people who agree with him. A university has so many channels to disseminate its point of view, even if the original media outlet denied it of its use.

But a legal challenge?

The latest is that we now have the five academics making a public statement standing by what they said.

They added: “As academics with collective experience in many countries besides Singapore, we believe that freedom of expression and active public debate are foundational to scholarly excellence and the advancement of human knowledge. We are unaware of other situations where media reporting responsibly on the opinions of faculty have been subject to ‘legal challenge’ from a university.

“As individuals who care about Singapore academia, we are saddened by this apparent intolerance. We hope that the situation will be quickly resolved in a manner that will not be discouraging to our fellow academics in Singapore, or those who may contemplate working there in future.”

I am sad, too. I would have thought a university would have a thicker skin and would have tried to parry every thrust and put in a few jabs, rather than using the law as a shield. According to ST, NUS responded by saying that while it welcomed diverse views, constructive feedback and robust discourse, it wished that the article was impartial and factually accurate. The spokesman also lamented that the article did not adequately represent the university’s position, even though its clarification was sought.

All this is simply too puzzling. What were the factual inaccuracies? And what replies did it give to the media that went un- or under-reported? Can we have a look so that we can come to our “own conclusions in a fair and objective manner?” which is what the university said it wants?

I think NUS should drop (or at least specify) the legal challenge it is pursuing against TODAY. It is a good, even great, university and it has plenty of people with the bandwidth to respond to accusations or do the defending.

What are we teaching our students if we reach for a gag order without giving reasons for it? Or if we shy away from a debate? Let’s be classy about it.

PS. The university has never, ever had a problem with my blog posts. May this happy state continue.

Related:

Academics stand by comments on NUS, NTU made in Today article that was removed