NTU – university or censorship watchdog?

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“Only political and no academic grounds were ever cited by the university leadership for this 2009 decision,” academic and professor, Cherian George, wrote on his website on 24 December 2014.

He was referring to the decision by the Nanyang Technological University that year to grant him a promotion but to deny him tenure as recommended by its own 2008-09 promotion and tenure committee.

The committee had judged that Prof George, who joined the NTU in 2004, “deserved promotion and tenure.”

Referring to the decision not to grant him tenure, he wrote, “I was told of a ‘perception’ that my critical writing could pose a ‘reputational risk’ to the university in the future.”

From 2009 to 2012, Prof George revealed, the annual performance reviews “never highlighted any deficiency in research, teaching or service” that he was required to address in order to secure tenure.

“Instead, the only remedial actions discussed with me by any level of the university during that period were that I could perhaps try reaching out to the government, or moving to a role within the university that might be less politically sensitive than journalism education,” Prof George wrote.

After a new provost took over NTU in 2012, he was again renominated for tenure.

“I accepted my school’s decision to renominate me as a way for the university to review and correct the anomaly of 2009,” Prof George said. “Instead, willful blindness set in – aided by the removal from my tenure application of six pages containing background information about the earlier round. This redaction was done without my consent or knowledge, before internal and external reviewers received my dossier.”

Prof George reiterated twice in his clarification that the reason for denying him tenure was not an academic but a political reason.

Prof George’s clarification on his website was a response to a remark in the Times Higher Education website by his former provost at NTU, Bertil Andersson, who had claimed that the denial of tenure to Prof George “was not political”.

The controversy has led to questions about NTU’s integrity as an academic/tertiary institution in general, and of how it had treated Prof George, in particular.

Some have accused the NTU of censorship, or silencing those whose views it may find politically uncomfortable.

Prof George had been vocal about government policies on the media, for example.

But NTU’s action with regards to Prof George is not the first time that it has wielded the heavy axe of censorship for political reasons.

In September 2008, the university yanked an article and a news clip from a student campus newsletter and a broadcast programme respectively.

The reports were to feature the visit by opposition party leader, Chee Soon Juan, who had visited the campus a month earlier.

As The Online Citizen (TOC) reported then:

“After much negotiation between the paper’s teacher-advisors and the university, NTU president Su Guaning gave the article the go-ahead. However, he changed his mind at the last minute, and the article was removed just one day before the newspaper’s publication on Monday (15th September). Many of the student editors at the Chronicle were clearly indignant when they learnt about this.”

TOC also added:

“According to Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber, Chair of NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), which runs both campus media, the university’s position is that the story was killed because “there was a feeling of concern over the use of student media to publicise and promote the unsolicited views of an uninvited person to the campus.”

The incident resulted in the setting up of a Facebook group, the draping of a “Media Blackout” protest banner within the School of Communication & Information (SCI) compound by the students, as well as the setting up of an independent online newspaper called “The Enquirer” by a separate group of SCI students.

The students also took to Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park to protest against the university’s actions. (See here.)

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In 2009, another incident of censorship occurred in NTU.

This time, student Loo Zihan had wanted to have a poster displayed during the convocation ceremony, but this was denied by the school.

“The original draft of my speech was composed of words like “integrity” and “breaking new boundaries” , said Mr Loo Zihan in his valedictorian speech at the Nanyang Technological University graduation ceremony then, “but a recent incident put a reality check on what I have to say.”

He was dismayed by the university’s decision as the poster had earlier been displayed at the school for two weeks without any problems.

looAccording to the Straits Times, “the poster for his film “Threshold” shows a shirtless man standing at a basin while hands from behind hold his left shoulder and waist. A mirror in front of him shows the reflection of another man.”

Mr Loo withdrew the poster rather than subject it to any changes for it to be exhibited.

“As artists, we should not only strive to produce great art – but also bear responsibility for the art we produce. Otherwise, we betray ourselves, and our audiences,” he said.

The film was created as part of his thesis.

[Read the report here: "NTU student protests against school’s censorship in graduation speech”]

Meanwhile, Prof George left Singapore last year for a post at the School of Communication in Baptist University in Hong Kong.

The controversial incidents have raised serious questions of the NTU’s integrity as an institution of academic excellence, and how talented Singaporeans are driven away to other pastures through no fault of their own, and for simply holding differing views from that of the university, or its management.