Illustration by Max Ackerman
Illustration by Max Ackerman

In fall 2013, when the eager Yale freshmen converge on New Haven, Connecticut, they will be joined by classmates thousands of miles away on the school’s satellite campus in Singapore.

A joint venture with the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS promises to “draw on the best elements of the American liberal arts tradition, but re-shape and re-imagine the curriculum and collegiate experience for Asia.”

What this reshaping and reimagining actually means has been a source of concern for many at Yale. Homosexuality is illegal in Singapore, and its government has been criticized for crackdowns on free speech, including the 2010 arrest of British author Alan Shadrake after the publication of a book on the death penalty in Singapore.

The Yale faculty introduced a resolution last month demanding that the university “respect, protect and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination, and full political freedom both on the Yale-NUS campus and in Singapore as a whole.”

Broad statements of mission such as this are well and good. But as other American universities have learned --New York University in Abu Dhabi, Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, China, and Cornell, Georgetown and Northwestern in Qatar --the allure of adding an international outpost at little to no cost thanks to generous foreign-government support is hard to resist.

Challenge in Qatar

A more productive exercise is to consider what the business of liberal-arts education will look like in a country that doesn’t quite live up to the standards of Jeffersonian democracy.

I worked for two years at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar doing student development, a job chiefly concerned with all those intangibles that lead to the much-sought-after “vibrant campus community” of college-brochure fame.

The translation of the American college ethos was my job, and when I first began, I understood this more or less to mean mimicking activities and organizations found on the typical U.S. campus.

The opening of minds and the entertainment of “subversive” ideas are essential to the DNA of the American university, but they are not qualities that came without struggle. Opening a liberal-arts college in an illiberal place is an audacious act that must be met with a dose of realism. Establishing a campus culture that promotes critical thinking requires administrators and professors who are willing to lead by example in the classroom and in their daily lives, and to grapple with uncomfortable issues.

By inviting American colleges in, governments such as Singapore’s are flirting with the idea of liberalization, but the personal convictions of those in power don’t always mesh with those of the public.

It’s one thing to receive promises of uncensored book shipments from high-up officials, and quite another to ensure that a customs officer doesn’t take matters into his own hands to decide what’s smut and what’s not. This kind of disconnect is at once frustrating and clarifying for a university’s mission. If the aim is to help open up a society, you’ve got to start somewhere. Book shipments are as good a place as any.

Protect Privacy Networks

If there is one hard line to be taken, it is that students should never be denied the free flow of information. The ultimate equalizer of the modern age is the virtual privacy network, which allows foreign students to gain access to any information, database or article --Internet censors be damned. A well-stocked library doesn’t hurt, either.

Ensuring an open information network in a closed society is just one crucial part of creating that characteristic college bubble in which students may act with certain freedom, away from the constraints of the outside world. In Qatar, the bubble meant sitting with a member of the opposite sex on the same couch, for example, and not causing a scandal. The maintenance of this safe space in the university must be protected. School grounds should be a place of sanctuary, where free speech extends from the classroom to the halls and lounges.

This is not to say that elements of a restrictive society won’t seep into the classroom or university. Professors and administrators must be prepared for the inevitability of this.

In Qatar, students often felt uncomfortable talking about religion or issues of morality because of the country’s immutable standards in these areas. Georgetown’s traditional first-year theology course, “The Problem of God” -- an open-to-interpretation title taught by Jesuit priests and secular humanists alike -- caused quite a stir when brought to the Qatar campus.

A student approached us about starting an on-campus philosophical society based on atheistic belief -- an endeavor we supported. Some classmates ostracized him.

Yale professors are right to push the university to remember the most basic tenets of American higher education, but they do so from the safety of New Haven where they teach students who have grown up in a society that enshrines their right to say what they please and worship and live as they want, by and large. The foremost challenge that professors will face abroad is teaching critical thinking in the classroom. Challenging authority requires a shift for students who have grown up in educational systems that value rote memorization over the five-paragraph explorative essay.

Shock of Freedom

The good news for educators is that students experiencing a free exchange of ideas for the first time are aware of the importance of the act, which Americans might take for granted. In a rule-bound society, the relentless questioning of the status quo in the classroom can be shocking, sometimes painful, but it is the university’s place to guarantee that this continue, no matter what the geographical location.

In Doha, you could hardly sit through a dinner party, let alone a faculty and staff town hall, without having the questions that are being so hotly debated at Yale right now come up time and again: How are we to preserve the liberal-arts tradition when we are in a place that has institutionalized and codified the most illiberal values imaginable?

The atmosphere often felt bleak in a country that had no formal rights of free speech and worship, where homosexuality was illegal, and where migrant workers were kept out of most channels of Qatari life. It is not within any university’s ability in any country to reform a society. Educators are not imperialists, but they should be personifications of civic conscience, pushing student after student to question the rules of the world in which they live.

Acts of courage through critical thought are what U.S. colleges should aspire to when they go abroad -- progress that we can’t expect to be realized without some ugliness and struggle.

(Clare Malone, a Washington-based writer, worked in student development at the Qatar campus of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this story: Clare Malone at clarekmalone@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net