By Howard lee

Where is the borders

I can count in one hand the number of times that I have met Prof Cherian George face to face. He comes across as a measured speaker, keen to balance his arguments but not afraid to assert his beliefs.

I am more familiar with his writing, from reading his blog entries. I cannot say that I always agreed with his views, but I definitely respect the way he strings his arguments together, a technique that allows readers to easily structure their thoughts around an issue.

For that reason, I can understand why his student have risen to his defense when word got out that he has been refused his tenure at the Nanyang Technological University. It is in the interest of students to protect intellectual assets that they feel ensure a good education for them.

It is also to be expected that, given George’s reputation as an critical thinker, his students would have picked up some of his vibes and would have no qualms about challenging the status quo, hence the rather quick, public and by now sufficiently sustained petition to NTU.

Speculation is rife that the tenure was rejected precisely because George was deemed too critical of the Singapore government. The pre-narrative that informs this view: NTU is inherently pro-government and is not willing to be seen offering him protection in the form of job security.

Personally, I tend to think George comes across as too mild to possibly be deemed a risk to the political status quo. Indeed, his critical pieces are usually so balanced, giving credit where it is due, that only an extremely thin-skinned government would have reason to find his views offensive.

But a slightly more interesting issue to consider are the concerns raised about how tenure is a means by which academic staff can protect their intellectual freedom. Tenure effectively grants awarded academics a privilege that their other colleagues are not privy to: A contractual right not to have their position terminated within the term of the tenure, without just cause provided by the university.

In truth, such a practice is unheard of in Singapore’s broader employment terms, where generally it remains the employee’s duty to prove unlawful termination.

Does this level of protection mean that a tenured academic has greater liberty to do as he wishes without fear of reprisal or losing his job? Interestingly, the field is divided on whether tenures serve their purpose, with countering arguments by academics themselves, both for and against it.

On one side of the argument, a secured place in the university provides a sense of job security to an academic, giving him the freedom to push boundaries in research and, yes, even to be openly critical of established institutions and beliefs. Such a tenured professor is generally seen as having a positive influence on his students, encouraging them to push their own boundaries, and to be confident and open about their views.

On the other side, the desire to keep the tenure is seen as a carrot for a professor to toe the university line, sticking with the status quo and the preferences of the top echelons of the university – the same that decide exclusively on tenures – to keep the privileged position and avoid rocking the boat. Such a position is inherently negative, as it runs counter to the creative backbone that universities should keep at their core: Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.

It is through this constant challenge cycle that universities can stay at the top of their league and remain relevant to society at large, which in turn benefits their students.

The follow-on issue, then: Which of these positions influence the award of tenures at our local universities? We may never know the answer, as tenures are granted under confidentiality. Indeed, we might never have known about George’s case if one of the assessors did not tweet her sentiments about it. Even so, NTU has thus far refused to comment further on the case.

But we do need to know the position that our varsities take, because it tells us about where they stand when it comes to matters of creativity, innovation and staying ahead of the global knowledge curve. As institutions that take a step back from the practicalities of everyday life, universities are of immense value to society. They are in the best position to provide for a few more eureka moments.

Tenures are not exclusively good or bad; whether they are so depends very much on the university’s culture. Is it skewed towards pushing boundaries, or maintaining the status quo?

Perhaps that should be the question that NTU, and our other varsities by extension, need to answer. Justifying George’s rejection satisfies one case. It is the broader issue of our universities’ culture of innovation that all Singapore students who aspire towards a tertiary education have a stake in. Do our universities encourage disruptive thinking that leads to the next breakthrough, or are they happy just to churn out degrees? If I have a revolutionary idea, concept, theory, formula or hypothesis, would my university champion it, or ask me to sit down and be quiet?

As for George, I am sure that, with or without tenure, with or without a job at NTU, he will continue to make public waves in his own measured and balanced way. The desire to question and challenge norms, be it on political or academic fronts, is inherently good for Singapore and our students, and we should encourage people like George, not penalise them.

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