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Cherian George's Denial of Tenure and the Implications for the Singapore Public

By Yap Shiwen

The issue of Associate Professor Cherian George’s denial of tenure in Nanyang Technological University (NTU)’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communications bears consequences for both the Singapore public, NTU administration and for significant political factions within the Singapore government. This is especially glaring, given NTU’s international standing and branding as a global institution of merit.

Ranked 47th globally by QS World University Rankings in 2012, a jump of 11 places from its 2011 ranking, NTU is ranked as the fastest-rising university in the QS Global Top 50, and 4th in the world among young elite universities, according to QS World University Rankings Top 50 Under 50. NTU’s College of Engineering is the largest in the world, with its research output considered amongst the top five globally. 

In October 2012, NTU entered the Times Higher Education World University Rankings’ top 100 list, coming in at the 86th position after moving up 83 places from its 2011 ranking of 169. In July 2012, Microsoft Academic Search website ranked NTU’s overall engineering, according to the number publications and H-Index criteria, as the world’s 12th most significant within the last 10 years. 

Similarly, Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings place NTU in the 50th position, according to the 2011-2012 Engineering and Technology subject ranking assessment. NTU is also a founding member of the Global Alliance of Technological Universities.

Given this international standing and by extension, the intellectual capital possessed by the university, Cherian George’s case has attracted both international and local attention. And the reason of “Why?” is simple.

In reviewing the case of tenure granting to Associate Professor Cherian George, his CV indicates significant contributions to the fields of journalism, communication and media, across both academic and professional domains. In his academic career, Dr Cherian George has served as an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, as an Associate Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication in the Division of Journalism & Publishing, and as a Research Associate of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, Australia.

Prior to taking up his appointment at NTU, Dr Cherian George had served as  a post-doctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. He undertook a PhD in Communication from Stanford University, where he wrote a dissertation on internet-based alternative journalism in Singapore and Malaysia in 2003. He is also a Masters graduate of the Journalism School at Columbia University and Cambridge University, where he read social and political sciences for his bachelor’s degree.

Before moving into academia, he had already spent a decade as a journalist at The Straits Times, where he covered domestic politics and media issues. He also remains active in professional journalism, as the editor and publisher of What’s Up, an independent monthly current affairs newspaper for schools.

In view of this record and academic accomplishments, he can be said to be an individual of significant academic pedigree and journalistic experience. By application of any rational analysis, he has a significant level of intellectual capital and functions as a significant asset to the institution that chooses to employ him.

He has also been lauded by many of his students as a valuable academician and instructor within the discipline. This was clearly illustrated by the student-led petition to review the decision of NTU not to grant him tenure.

This refusal by NTU to grant tenure at such a high level, despite the recommendation of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information, the actions of the student body and the misgivings about Dr Cherian George’s case, as presented by Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen of Cardiff University and Associate Professor Cherian George’s thesis advisor, Stanford University’s Professor Theodore Glasser, has raised doubts about NTUs global reputation as “…a university of international standing” and its ability to maintain a commitment to academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a necessity for advancing in any discipline, due to the synergy granted by the exchange and interplay of ideas, the currency of intellectual capital. It allows for ideas to be evaluated for their value and merits, as well as their limitations.

What Cherian George’s case ultimately represents is a willingness by an external agency to compromise the academic integrity and educational calibre of an autonomous institution within NTU. It represents a willingness to compromise the quality of the education that our youths receive from outstanding individuals that lend to the credibility and branding of an organisation. It represents a willingness to compromise the credibility of a global institution that serves as a pillar of Singapore’s educational hub status and a vital part of the Nantah legacy.

Singapore has no natural resources and offers little aside from its connectivity across multiple areas, as a hub for multiple industrial sectors and strategic location at the crossroads of Asia, straddling the Malacca Straits. What we offer, amongst many things, are global institutions that can operate in close geographic proximity, and academic institutions of global standing that can offer significant intellectual capital to industries in an economy reliant on services and knowledge.

The tenure denial risks NTUs reputation and credibility on an international level. Credibility and reputation are critical to the marketing and branding of an institution or organisation, and its resulting success and appeal to both academics and students. Actions that risk NTUs reputation, and by extension Singapore’s education sector, are both misguided and short-sighted in the extreme.

The external party purportedly responsible for such an intervention with negative consequences is the PAP, the People’s Action Party. If such allegations are true, it indicates a lack of maturity on the part of the organisation and a loss of political capital for the PAP, decreasing its appeal with the student body of NTU and the electorate at large.

What it does potentially indicate is a short-sighted and misguided willingness to ruin the reputation of a local institution with global reach, built upon years of hard work, an inability to engage in dialogue and handle criticism and more importantly ,to the older generation, a willingness to compromise the quality of education their youth receive.

Ultimately, the tenure denial of Dr Cherian George inflicts damage to the credibility of NTU. And it expends political capital of a respected ruling party for no real gain other than increased resentment, if they are indeed influencing such a decision. We can only hope that such a move is an oversight and reversed with due haste by NTU.