I have been observing – and participating in – the discussion and criticism surrounding NTU’s decision to once again reject Dr Cherian George’s tenure application. I wrote blog posts about the decision and its wider implications here and here.
I was recently forwarded a letter written by Professor Theodore Glasser, Dr George’s dissertation advisor at Stanford University, and was given permission to publish it.
This is what Professor Glasser wrote to me:
I am releasing my letter to add to the chorus of outrage over NTU’s decision to once again deny Cherian George the tenured position he earned several years ago. Most of the letter documents what I regard as Professor George’s stellar record. The second and last paragraphs make clear what I think is at stake in this case.
My unsolicited letter was written at Professor George’s request as an addendum to his tenure file. Although I served as an external reviewer for his initial appointment in 2004, for his tenure and promotion review in 2009, and for a third time for his three-year reappointment in early 2012, my role as Professor George’s dissertation advisor, I was told, suddenly disqualified me as an external reviewer. NTU refused to include my letter in Professor George’s file.
9 September 2012
I am once again writing on behalf of Cherian George, who is once again being considered for tenure.
It’s difficult for me to know what I can or should say beyond what I wrote in early 2009 when Professor George was being considered for tenure and promotion; and what I wrote only a few months ago, in March, when Professor George was being considered for a three-year reappointment as an associate professor. As far as I am concerned, NTU made an appropriately positive judgment about Professor George and his work when it decided to promote him to associate professor. To separate promotion from tenure, for no publicly justifiable reason, calls into question the integrity and legitimacy of NTU’s policies and procedures. I trust that the current review is an earnest effort to set the record straight and award Dr George the tenure he earned but did not receive when he was promoted to associate professor.
When in 2004 I wrote in support of Dr George’s initial appointment, I said that among the scores of Ph.D students with whom I had worked at Stanford and before that at the University of Minnesota, Dr George ranked at or near the top. He impressed me the – and continues to impress me today – as an enormously talented and energetic scholar whose work deals with issues and ideas of enduring importance.
When I wrote in 2009 in support of his tenure and promotion, I noted that throughout his work, beginning with is collection of essays on Singapore’s commitment to comfort and control, captured literally and figuratively by his description of Singapore as “the air-conditioned nation”, Dr George had positioned himself as the loyal opposition to the conventions, traditions and assumptions (and legislation) that effectively impede robust and uninhibited public expression in Singapore. I also observed that it was worth belaboring the obvious point that, given his accomplishments, Dr George could have pursued an academic career in just about any part of the world. He instead wanted to return to Singapore, his home, because he wanted to do more than study the press and other forms of public communication. As he has explained on more than a few occasions, publicly and privately, he is committed to Singapore’s future. That is, notwithstanding the opportunity Singapore represents as a laboratory for the study of tensions between the democratic ideal of free and open communication and the state’s insistence on the conditions for coercion, Dr George continues to be stimulated by Singapore because he feels an obligation to contribute to discussions that might over time improve the prospects for an enriched and expanded civil society there.
In 2009, I predicted that Dr George was likely to emerge as one of Singapore’s leading public intellectuals. I did not know at the time that he was about to be the only NTU faculty member listed by Readers Digest Asia as one of Singapore’s 20 Most Trusted People; and that, more recently, Yahoo! News was to name him one of five “thinkers” in Singapore, again being the only NTU faculty member singled out for recognition.
With regard to his research, I wrote in 2009 that Dr George’s studies of journalism in Singapore set an agenda – for himself and for others – for research that extends far beyond Singapore. Contentious Journalism and the Internet, for example, based on his dissertation research, focuses on the role of the Internet as a platform – as well as a symbol – of democratic reform in Malaysia and Singapore. His theoretical framework, firmly rooted in the literature in political science, sociology and communication, guides a detailed and sophisticated analysis of the conditions under which certain forms of communication technology might facilitate challenges to entrenched and authoritarian regimes. It is comparative research at its best, a project that succeeds in saying something conceptually interesting, far beyond Malaysia and Singapore, about the similarities and dissimilarities of Internet use in reform movements. But what stands out as his important contribution to the field, and what best captures his originality of thought, is his development of the concept of “calibrated coercion.” This is a powerful idea, which applies to any number of settings. Dr George uses it to explain state-press relations in Singapore, but it obviously explains much more than that. I expect to see this concept used widely as a way of understanding the subtlety of the influence of the state on press practices and performance.
Despite the enormous distraction of the uncertainty of his future at NTU, including the apparently pointless requirement that he spend scarce and valuable time writing a paper on the scope and purpose of an education in journalism, Dr George continues in his role as a productive and influential researcher. Although I haven’t had an opportunity to read his most recent book, Freedom from the Press: Journalism and State Power in Singapore, published this year, I am familiar enough with his work in this area to recognize that the idea of “networked hegemony”, a term Dr George uses to reconcile Singapore’s commitment to unlicensed internet use with its commitment to foreclose political competition, has the same kind of conceptual and intellectual appeal as “calibrated coercion.” It, too, is likely to have a long shelf-life.
Dr George is keenly aware of the significance of the new and different conditions brought about by the recent and rapid computerization of communication, which makes his analyses as timely as they are incisive. Overall, as I wrote only a few months ago in support of his reappointment, his research stands out in three important ways: First, it is fundamentally and richly historical, which provides a context for descriptions and interpretations; second, the descriptions and interpretations call our attention to the subtle tensions and contradictions that others usually miss; and third, it uses these tensions and contradictions to develop a carefully crafted set of claims, concepts and arguments that resonate with scholars who might not otherwise pay attention to research about Singapore.
Like many outside reviewers, I haven’t observed Dr George in a classroom in Singapore, so I’m not well placed to comment on the quality of his teaching at NTU. But I can say, as I have said before, that at Stanford he served with distinction as one of my teaching assistants. More than that, he was one of a very small number of Ph.D. students we let teach a course on his own, an experience for which he was rewarded with some of the highest teaching evaluations I’ve seen. I have, of course, listened to Dr George on many occasions, including at a symposium here at Stanford in 2010, where, better than anyone I’ve seen in years, he was able to bridge the gap between journalists and journalism educators and keep everyone focused on matters of mutual concern. From what I can tell, and from reports from others, Dr George is as engaging and as compelling on his feet as he is on a keyboard. I am not in the least surprised that he recently received the Nanyang Award for Teaching Excellence, which I understand is NTU’s highest teaching award.
Finally, I want to be unambiguously clear about what I think is at stake here. Cherian George’s career is on the line, and that’s obviously very important to him and to his friends and colleagues. But just as important is NTU’s reputation as a university of international standing. Many of us view this case as a measure of not only NTU’s commitment to academic freedom but its commitment to apply its promotion and tenure standards fairly and equitably. Having served as a Wee Kim Wee Visiting Professor, I have a special interest in seeing this review resolved in a way that preserves the sterling reputation of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.