24 December 2014
When I wrote seven months ago about my departure from Nanyang Technological University, I had hoped that there would be nothing else I’d need to say. NTU itself had been careful not to comment too specifically on my case, allowing me to reciprocate with discretion.
Unfortunately, university president Bertil Andersson has now deviated from this course. In an article in the Times Higher Education website this month, he was quoted as follows when questioned about my case:
According to Professor Andersson, Dr George “was subjected to the same scrutiny as everyone else” in the institution’s tenure process. He added 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.” (“Singapore is ‘Asia lite’ for Western universities”, 4 December 2014.)
I asked him to retract his misspoken words, as a result of which he eventually issued a clarification, that “there was no intention to lower the reputation or standing of Dr George in his field of work”.
This fails 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.
Like him, I have no wish to lower the standing of any fellow academic. I chose to err on the side of reticence partly out of consideration for individuals whom I think of as victims of circumstance, even if they could have responded more courageously to a difficult situation.
But I cannot leave Professor Andersson’s statements uncorrected.
The issue here does not boil down to “different opinions”, as he suggests, but the following objective facts that contradict his quotes. First, I was assessed to have met the university’s academic criteria for promotion and tenure in 2009. Second, NTU withheld tenure nonetheless. And third, it gave only political and not academic reasons for its decision.
The 2008-09 promotion and tenure committee, which Prof Andersson himself chaired while he was Provost, judged that I deserved promotion and tenure. He later described this assessment as “clear”. This was also acknowledged to me by the university President at the time, and has since been written about publicly by one of the committee members.
The positive academic assessment of the Provost’s committee materialised in my promotion to Associate Professor in 2009. However, the other half of the recommendation – to grant me tenure – was set aside.
Only political and no academic grounds were ever cited by the university leadership for this 2009 decision. I was told of a “perception” that my critical writing could pose a “reputational risk” to the university in the future.
My subsequent annual performance reviews from 2009-2012 never highlighted any deficiency in research, teaching or service that I 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.
Initially, the university assured me that I would not need to reapply for tenure (since I had already met all academic criteria) and that it would simply reconsider my case at the right time. However, in 2012, a new Provost chose to dispense with this promise.
I accepted my school’s decision to renominate me as a way for the university to review and correct the anomaly of 2009. 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.
Regardless of how the new Provost and his 2013 tenure committee arrived at their eventual decision, it is beyond dispute that my case would not even have landed on their table had NTU acted on the positive academic assessments of the 2009 process.
Professor Andersson’s comments to an influential publication like Times Higher Education, suggesting instead that I had to leave NTU because of academic shortcomings, are thus incorrect, insensitive and injurious to the reputation of a Singaporean forced to reestablish his career outside his home country by his employer’s failure to treat him like other academics.
The fair and gentlemanly thing to do would have been to retract his remarks and ensure that no NTU official repeat such words.
If he wishes to stand by what he said, let me invite him to put the matter to rest by disclosing all documents relevant to my tenure case.
At a minimum, these should include: the minutes of his tenure committee in 2009; the handwritten notes from the meeting of 2010 at which the reasons for withholding tenure were explained to me by the then President and Provost, watched over by the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education in her capacity as a member of the Board of Trustees; and my annual appraisals between the first and second tenure applications. From the second round, there are the letters from the independent reviewers that the university invited to assess my dossier in 2012; and the minutes of the Provost’s tenure committee.
He can do so to the general public, or perhaps to expert audiences better equipped to interpret the technicalities of a university’s tenure process, such as the editors of Times Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and auditors from the QAFU External Review Panel.
NTU has told third parties that it is not appropriate to discuss personnel matters, ostensibly to protect my confidentiality. I am prepared to waive any confidentiality rights that I may have, if it agrees to reveal all the above documents. If NTU declines, that is its prerogative – but any embarrassment it avoids would not be mine.
Epilogue: Some reporters have asked if I intend to push NTU to release its documents. I’ve pointed out to them that I’d suggested that the university do so if it wished to contradict the above account. Since it has not challenged my version, I consider the matter closed.