Tale of 2 NTU Profs: One gets tenure while the other doesn’t

Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological Univerity (NTU) wrote an opinion piece published in Straits Times on Wednesday (‘Operation Coldstore and the perils of academic misinformation’, 4 Apr). He defended the government’s position with regard to Operation Coldstore in 1963 while at the same time trying to discredit Dr PJ Thum.

RSIS is a graduate school and policy-oriented think tank operating under NTU. It offers graduate education in international affairs. The school is named after Singapore’s former cabinet minister, the late S. Rajaratnam.

According to RSIS website, Dr Kumar Ramakrishna is a tenured Associate Professor and Head Policy Studies, as well as Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme, in the “Office of the Executive Deputy Chairman” in RSIS. Being tenured, it meant Kumar has an indefinite academic appointment with NTU. It is thought that a tenured academic is beneficial for the society in the long run if scholars are free to hold and examine a variety of views.

Kumar has also served as a member of the Singapore Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) Resource Panel on Home Affairs and Law; the Board of Trustees, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, the Board of Governors of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) Academy, and the Executive Committee of the Political Science Association (Singapore).

In his opinion piece, Kumar accused Dr Thum of ignoring critical comments against Dr Thum’s own research work on Coldstore.

“Mr Shanmugam alluded to this shortcoming of Dr Thum’s methodology, when citing Oxford historian Richard Evans’ criterion of an objective historian as someone who ‘takes into account the arguments and interpretations of other historians who have examined the same documents’,” Kumar said, citing what Home Affairs and Law Minister had said during the Select Committee’s hearing.

“In short, as Mr Shanmugam argued, it was not that ‘there was no conspiracy’. Rather, ‘there was a conspiracy but it was not tightly organized’. The idea was to seed rather than closely direct trouble,” he further supported what the Minister said at the hearing in his article.

Note that as a member of the GPC Resource Panel on Home Affairs and Law, Kumar would help and support the work of GPC for Home Affairs and Law, currently chaired and co-chaired by MP Christopher de Souz and MP Edwin Tong. GPCs are supposed to help scrutinize the legislation and programmes of the various government Ministries. They also serve as an additional channel of feedback on government policies.

Dr Cherian George denied tenure

Dr Cherian George joined the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU as an academic in 2004. He was very much well-liked by his students and consistently achieved high performance appraisals. However, he is also known to speak out against media control in Singapore and can be critical of the ruling PAP government.

In 2013, NTU rejected his tenure despite meeting the university’s academic and scholastic criteria. The denial of his tenure sparked protests among faculty members and students at NTU.

Professor Mark Featherstone, who taught at NTU’s School of Biological Sciences, wrote a public letter saying that the rejections of Dr George’s tenure due to interference from outside the University were “beyond serious rebuttal” and called NTU’s assertions that the rejection had a purely peer-driven academic review, false.

“It is rather the result of an imposition originating from outside the University,” wrote Prof Featherstone.

The rejection of Dr George’s tenure meant that he had to leave NTU.

In Aug 2014, he left the university and was forced to seek academic appointment outside of Singapore. He finally joined the Hong Kong’s Baptist University.

Dr Cherian George challenged NTU to lay bare why he was denied tenure

In 2015, the issue of Dr George’s tenure re-ignited again when NTU President Bertil Andersson gave an interview to Times Higher Education, saying that Dr George’s tenure was rejected due to “academic” reasons and not “political”.

Dr George “was subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else” and that “one can have different opinions if that academic decision [by] our tenure committee was right or not. That is an academic decision. But the decision was not political,” said Andersson.

Andersson’s comments triggered Dr George to respond.

“I have moved on, but unfortunately the NTU president’s unprovoked smear left me no choice but to respond with the facts,” said Dr George in an email to Yahoo Singapore.

Dr George, through a blog post titled simply as “A Clarification”, said he had immediately asked Andersson to “retract his misspoken words” as it cast doubt on Dr George’s impeccable 10-year academic record during his time with NTU.

Although the NTU president did eventually issue a clarification that “there was no intention to lower the reputation or standing of Dr George in his field of work”, Dr George said it failed to “reduce the sting of his published remarks”.

“They amount to a statement by the NTU president that the reason I was forced to leave his university was that I was unable to meet its academic standards required for tenure,” wrote Dr George.

“His comments are thus… incorrect, insensitive and injurious to the reputation of a Singaporean forced to re-establish his career outside his home country by his employer’s failure to treat him like other academics,” he added.

He challenged NTU to disclose all documents relevant to his tenure case, either to the general public or to education experts. He also agreed to waive any confidentiality rights if full disclosure was made, ending his post with “If NTU declines, that is its prerogative — but any embarrassment it avoids would not be mine.”

NTU then replied in a statement through Straits Times that it has “already stated its position on several previous occasions and will not be making any further comments”.

Hence, we can see two professors from the same university experiencing different treatments. What can one conclude from this?