Singapore’s academics: How are they judged?By Kirsten Han Mar 06, 2013 12:06AM UTC
The recent decision from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to reject Dr Cherian George’s tenure application has drawn plenty of criticism and alarm among his students and fellow academics in Singapore.
A former journalist, Dr Cherian George is currently an associate professor in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI). His first tenure application had been rejected in 2009. Dr Benjamin Hill Detenber, chair of WKWSCI, revealed to concerned students that the school had endorsed both of Dr George’s applications, but that they had been rejected at higher levels. Going by NTU’s system, Dr George will now have to leave the institution within a year.
Dr George has gained prominence in Singapore for his research and critiques on politics and the media. On top of publishing two books on Singapore’s media landscape – ’Contentious Journalism and the Internet’ in 2006 and ‘Freedom from the Press’ in 2012 – Dr George has also spoken at forums and blogged on Journalism.sg.
Many, including external reviewer and Cardiff University professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, suspect that political considerations had come into play in denying Dr George a tenure contract.
As a reviewer, Cherian George’s tenure case was watertight – must be all about politics and repressing academic freedom. Shame and scandal.
— Karin Wahl-Jorgensen (@KarinWahlJ) February 25, 2013
The news led to four of Dr George’s final-year students starting a petition urging the university to explain its decision.
“In light of Professor Wahl-Jorgensen’s comments, we urge the university to shed more light on the reasons behind its decision to deny Dr George a tenure contract,” the petition reads. “Her allegations are serious as they suggest an overt curtailment of academic freedom and a policy of political discrimination in NTU. They not only dramatically affect the global reputation of NTU and WKWSCI, but the value of our degrees as well.”
The petition has now gathered 948 signatures from former and current students, academics and members of the public. But the story doesn’t end there – almost 100 Singaporean academics, public intellectuals and civil society members have also released a letter questioning the criteria employed by universities in accessing tenure applications and the role of academics in Singaporean society.
The letter states: “Singapore universities have made impressive strides of late and have drawn faculty and students from all over the world. They have adopted international benchmarks in faculty assessment that emphasize teaching and research excellence. However, commentators worldwide have noted that such benchmarks, which measure academic publication in specialist journals and expensive scholarly books, discourage the engagement of academics with their immediate social context.”
Dr George has so far declined to make any public comment about his case, but this has now grown far beyond just one man’s tenure application; the discussion has now extended to the way we interact, and the role academics can play in an organic national conversation.