The curious case of Cherian George Redux

In News Reports, Politics on January 7, 2015 at 12:22 pm

You know the phrase: Let sleeping dogs lie. Now an old issue looks like it’s going to be dug up from the morass of ambiguity in which it had been buried. From Hong Kong, Dr Cherian George has fired a missile at his former employer for making somewhat defamatory seeming comments (my words) in an education website.

Dr George didn’t say he was going the legal route but his words could have been borrowed from a lawyer’s dictionary. Likewise, the response from Nanyang Technological University where he used to teach journalism.

I am taking the lead from MSM by not repeating words that might be potentially libellious. Let me just say that university president Bertil Andersson was trying to stress that the decision not to grant Dr George tenure was not a political decision but one taken by the tenure committee. That is, Dr George was assessed in the same way as other academics going for tenure, which presumably meant that he had been found wanting on the academic front.

This appears to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Dr George described the remarks as “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’’. 

He said he had asked for a retraction but NTU replied with a clarification: that it had no intention to lower Dr George’s reputation and standing in the field. That is, no malice was intended. In likewise lawyerly language, Dr George replied that this clarification “fails to reduce the sting of his published remarks’’.

Frankly, I wondered why Dr George had held his tongue (or pen) for so long. His distress was already clear in an earlier blog post seven months ago just before he left for Hong Kong Baptist university. It was his first extensive public comment on the issue which had drawn the attention of foreign academics and media.

He said:  “It didn’t help that my employer issued this public statement about its general policy: “The tenure review process is purely a peer-driven academic exercise… The two equally important criteria are distinction in research and scholarship, and high quality teaching.”

While this may be true in general, the process was not followed in my specific case.’’

He proceeded to give a condensed version of what happened in 2009 and later. He added: “When set against the facts of my case, my employer’s public statement that “all” NTU faculty go through the same “purely” peer-driven process is inaccurate.’’

 Then seven months later, NTU more or less repeated this in Times Higher Education supplement.

I had expected at that time that NTU would respond to his earlier blog post. After all, here is one of its (former) academics accusing it of being politically influenced (whether self-afflicted or pressed by outside forces) in decisions that should be based purely on academic performance. To put it bluntly, Dr George is saying that NTU didn’t have the guts to give him tenure even though, he claimed, the committee thought he was good enough for it. Why? Because of a “perception’’ that his critical writing would pose a “reputational risk’’. Now Dr George is an excellent writer but the journalist in him would acknowledge that the follow-up questions would be:

  1. How did the perception arise? Who said what to whom?
  2. Which set of critical writing? His book Freedom from the Press?
  3. Define reputational risk. Is NTU afraid that people would say it has some sort of rebel/maverick in its ranks? So what? For some universities, it might well be a badge of honour to have academics of different stripes.

Some commentators have already suggested that this is something that happens in the “real world’’. Companies have been known to sack employees for other reasons than job performance such as inappropriate speech  – think Anton Casey and Amy Cheong. In fact, employers have plenty of discretion over the retention of its employees. If you are on contract and it is not renewed, employers are not compelled to give you a reason.

Should academia be treated in the same way? We can debate this issue till the cows come home but right now, I think the issue is this: Dr George is saying that NTU lied about why he was not given tenure and hence had to leave the university. NTU should respond, to save its own reputation.

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