The decision of a Singaporean university to deny tenure to Cherian George Ph.D. ’03, an associate professor of journalism and publishing known for his controversial political views, has sparked international outrage among academics amidst broader concerns for freedom of speech in Singapore.
According to Nanyang Technical University (NTU)’s tenure contract policy, George will have to leave the university within a year after being denied tenure twice within three years. George, who said that he could not speak to the media until his appeal is decided, has written three books and numerous articles on censorship in Singapore.
Professor of Communication Theodore Glasser, George’s dissertation advisor at Stanford, said that he believed George was denied tenure for “offending the political powers in Singapore.”
“We know what his record is and there’s no good reason to deny him tenure,” Glasser said, adding that George’s work at Stanford was “top-notch.”
Glasser questioned why George’s tenure application was first rejected in 2009, when NTU had promoted George to associate professor in a move that Glasser said reflected a positive assessment of George’s record.
“Usually a promotion and tenure go hand-in-hand,” Glasser said. “There was no reasonable public explanation for why he was promoted and at the same time denied tenure. If he didn’t have a good record, why promote him?”
Several external reviewers selected by NTU to evaluate George’s tenure application, including Karin Wahl-Jorgensen M.A. ’97 Ph.D. ’00, professor at Cardiff University, have spoken out against the decision to deny George’s application.
According to Wahl-Jorgensen, the external reviewers were asked to examine a “pretty hefty file” of George’s work and determine whether or not it met international standards for tenure. Wahl-Jorgensen said that George’s tenure application was “by far the most outstanding that I’ve ever seen.”
“When I looked at it, I thought, ‘This person should be a full professor and would probably easily be able to get a job as a full professor at other institutions,’” Wahl-Jorgensen recalled.
Several of George’s students, including Eve Yeo Yu Ping, were similarly distressed by the decision to reject George’s tenure application. Yu Ping and three other NTU students started a petition, which has gathered nearly 1,000 signatures, asking administrators to explain the decision to deny George tenure.
Yu Ping, who took an introductory journalism class from George and who collaborated with him during a reporting trip to Bhutan, said that the petition organizers decided last year to express their sentiments if George’s tenure application was denied for a second time.
“We agreed that if it didn’t go well again, we wanted to raise it up in a public sphere and hopefully get it right,” Yu Ping said.
While Yu Ping described George as a “very sharp” teacher who made his students “think outside the box,” she was hesitant to blame NTU for the decision to deny him tenure.
“We don’t want to be accusing the school of anything,” Yu Ping emphasized. “When we started the petition, it was never [meant] to reverse the University’s tenure decision. It was [intended] to ask the University for transparency and get it to clarify what it meant by saying that Cherian’s teaching was subpar.”
Yu Ping and the other petition organizers met with several NTU administrators, including Benjamin Detenber, chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI), and Provost Freddy Boey.
According to Detenber, WKWSCI endorsed George’s tenure application in 2009 and again this year. George’s application was then sent to Liu Hong, Chair of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as NTU’s tenure review committee and the Academic Affairs Council.
Yu Ping said that the petition organizers were not able to determine exactly why George’s application was rejected at higher levels of review, as Boey has a policy of not commenting on specific cases.
Detenber, Booey and several other NTU administrators did not respond to requests for comment.
Although George may be forced to leave NTU, he may be able to continue teaching in Singapore. Students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have written an open letter to NUS administrators asking them to “proactively seek out Dr George and have him on our campus.”
“NTU’s loss can be NUS’ gain,” the letter states. “We urge NUS’ leadership to offer Dr Cherian George a post in NUS’ Communications and New Media Department, where we believe he will be able to contribute much in terms of research, teaching and service to the community.”
Glasser also expressed optimism about George’s career possibilities moving forward, saying that his tenure application would likely have been accepted at “just about any other university in the world.”
“I can’t think of one that wouldn’t be exhilarated and ecstatic to have Cherian on the faculty,” Glasser emphasized.