The curious case of Cherian George Part 2

In News Reports, Politics, Society on March 5, 2013 at 3:39 am

SOME local luminaries have weighed in on controversy over the Nanyang Techonological University’s decision to decline Mr Cherian George’s application for tenure a second time. You know, so far, the suspicion has been over whether he was denied tenure because of his outspokenness, but another facet that hasn’t quite been explored was whether what his work as an academic fits the NTU’s criteria on who gets tenure.

The group said in its open letter to NTU’s top brass: “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.’’

Breaking this down, I suppose the subtext is whether NTU thought that “publication in specialist journals and expensive scholarly books’’ as more important than having academics who can promote public discourse in their area of expertise. In other words, maybe Dr George didn’t have stuff printed in the right journals, even if he is known as intellectual busy (or maybe too busy) in the public arena raising the level of political discourse.

“If NTU’s tenure criteria are not seen to support such engagement it will impoverish Singapore’s intellectual community and raise a troubling future scenario. Social transition in the next decades will bring robust public debate among an increasingly diverse populace. Promotion and tenure criteria that do not appear to value public engagement will discourage academics from speaking up.’’

There have been suggestions Dr George could have been disadvantaged at the outset because of his field of expertise in a university that is still predominantly “technological’’.
One former academic explained it this way to me: “The nature of the engineering/science fields and journalism (or the social sciences/humanities for that matter) result in very different types of research done, and therefore the volume of publications produced, the reach they have (or “impact factor”) and where. Furthermore, non-research contributions might be valued differently. In engineering/sciences, it might be the number of patents or products put into the market. But in other fields like journalism, it could be service as role as a public intellectual, as George was.’’

In other words, there are certain qualitative differences in disciplines which should be acknowledged and accounted for in the granting of tenure. The question then is whether NTU’s top brass is applying the same standards to all in NTU seeking tenure, regardless of disciplines. Looks fair, but is it?

Apparently, the NTU top brass and the faculty which Dr George belongs to, the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information have different ideas about tenure. According to Yahoo, his colleagues have decided that a collective formal letter of concern would be written to the school chair, Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber, over George’s “implicit’’ dismissal.

NTU has confirmed that “those who do not obtain tenure on the second attempt can continue to teach for up to one more year at the university”. While the schools initiate the nomination process for tenure, it is “very common’’ for nominations to be rejected at the college and higher levels of review.”

By the way, the 2013 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings released this morning showed that NTU moved to the 71th-80th band, up from the 81-90th band last year. Among universities in Asia, NTU came in 13th. Urrrhhh… congratulations NTU. The rankings are based on 16,639 responses from senior academics around the world. The poll asked academics to nominate no more than 15 of the best institutions in their narrow field of expertise, based on their experience and knowledge. I wonder if the “narrow field of expertise’’ included communications and information.

Dr George has kept a prudent silence so far. According to Yahoo, following notification of his rejection slightly more than a week ago, he will have another four days to decide whether or not to appeal the decision. Stay tuned for Part 3.

More on
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  1. 1. I took a quick look at NTU’s website & couldn’t figure out who are the “top brass” that vetoed the recommendation. Is it the Board of Trustees, the Academic Council or the Management?

    2. Regardless, it would be good if the “top brass” can explain its criteria. I am referring to selection or rejection of granting professorship in general and not specifically to Mr. George’s case.
    Such a move will reduce the speculation (always bad for a prestigious organization) & reduce unnecessary time & effort (i.e. Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information putting up the submission in the 1st place).

    3. Then again, using Mr. Cheong Yip Seng as a reference, perhaps times are a-changing & Mr. George would be better off leaving NTU & re-joining the Straits Times? Mr. George might well end up as editor of the Straits Times & revealing more juicy details after his retirement.

    4. Regardless, I’m confident talented individuals will always be recognized & appreciated sooner or later.

  2. At a rough guess, and speaking as a journalist, I’d guess that Cherian has probably had more ‘papers’ published in his chosen field of expertise than the entire Tenure Committee, Board of Trustees and the Academic Council combined.
    Oh, and Airconditioned Nation was an inspired title, particularly when you think about the explanation the author gave quoting a certain senior statesman commenting in Time mag (?) “The best invention of the 20th Century is the airconditioner it lets people in hot climates work in the heat of the day”…. Mr George’s explanation of his book’s title “Consider how the airconditioner works: you hermatically seal a room, expel the hot air and chill the interior” (I paraphrase) – beautifully cheeky !

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