[UPDATED 26 Feb, 10pm: Adding NTU statement]
Nanyang Technological University defended its tenure process Tuesday night following an outcry over its denial of tenure to an outspoken associate professor.
Below is the statement from a spokesperson for the university:
"NTU has a rigorous tenure process. All NTU faculty seeking tenure go through the same process. More than 1,000 faculty have gone through this process at NTU in the last six years and so far, more than 55% have been granted tenure."
"The tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise comprising internal and external reviewers. The two equally important criteria are distinction in research and scholarship, and high quality teaching. Service and other contributions to the university, profession, or community are also taken into consideration.
"As all employment matters are confidential, NTU will not comment on any specific cases.
Over the weekend, news came out that Cherian George, associate professor for journalism at NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), had been denied tenure.
Cardiff University professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen tweeted Saturday morning that the rejection was “on the grounds of quality of teaching and research”.
In subsequent tweets, Wahl-Jorgensen, who revealed that she was one of the reviewers for George’s case, said she was “outraged” at the decision not to grant him tenure, and that it could have been “because he sometimes expressed political opinions”.
An adjunct senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies and former journalist with The Straits Times, George has spoken out against media control and has been critical of the ruling People’s Action Party. He joined NTU in 2004.
Wahl-Jorgensen alluded to NTU’s decision being detrimental “for academic freedom” and said it raised “big question marks about international collaborations” with Singapore and NTU.
She said also said George’s application was “watertight” and believed the board’s decision “made no sense on grounds of research and teaching”.
Tenure would give him the contractual right not to have his position terminated without just cause. George was previously denied tenure once in 2009 when he was promoted to the position of associate professor. Typically, academic promotions are accompanied by tenures.
In reaction to the news, an online petition was set up by final-year WKWSCI student Bhavan Jaipragas to urge the NTU board to “affirm (George’s) stellar teaching credentials and disclose the reasons behind the decision to deny his tenure”.
A day after the petition was initiated, the number of signatories have more than doubled to 686 signatories as of press time.
“We felt it was very important any impression that Dr George's teaching skills were sub-par had to be quickly demolished. We also want the school and university to… categorically dispel claims of curtailment of academic freedom in NTU,” said Bhavan to Yahoo! Singapore.
Bhavan said he heard of the news from several sources over the weekend, before such tipoffs were confirmed by Wahl-Jorgensen’s tweets. He said he will deliver hard copies of the petition with the list of signatories to four key members of the NTU leadership, including NTU president Bertil Andersson.
In one of the petition’s comments, associate professor William Ray Lengenbach, head of media at Sunway University College, said, “Cherian George is a significant regional intellectual and his views on Singapore politics should have no bearing on his tenure. If there indeed is government pressure on the university's decisions, it is time for academic staff and administration to stand up against such pressures.”
Among several high-profile signatories who have come forward include Lai Ah Eng, senior research fellow at the Asian Research Institute at the National University of Singapore.
She said, "Our local intellectual resources are already so limited and seem to be declining with academic globalisation. We need people who have both global and local knowledge, and Cherian has it. If we do not hire the likes of him, then who do we hire?"
Among the students who have spoken out against the alleged grounds, alumnus Johnson Zhang commended George for being friendly and knowledgeable. “To say that the quality of Dr George's teaching was 'sub-par' would be an insult to us graduates who had the honour of learning from him,” said Zhang.
“As someone who has worked with Dr George for close to two decades, I am dumbfounded by the news. I don't know of many professors in NTU who give as much to the students, even fewer who have clear vision of how a great journalism department in an university can be and should be,” said WKWSCI photojournalism lecturer Tay Kay Chin in a post on Facebook.
George declined comment when approached by Yahoo! Singapore.
Last year, the issue of academic freedom was raised in relation to the launch of the Yale-NUS College, a partnership with Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS). Yale members passed a resolution expressing their concern restriction of civil liberties in Singapore.