Prof Cherian George: Moving on

This August, I’ll be starting work at Hong Kong Baptist University’s school of communication. It’s a move that will let me continue my journalism research, teaching and advocacy while remaining in Asia. That I can’t do so in my homeland is my loss, but I’m hopeful that this will be made up for by the stimulation of an invigorating new environment.

I have been publicly silent about the circumstances surrounding my forced exit from Nanyang Technological University. One reason was that I didn’t want to slip into the cliché of the disgruntled employee – who, let’s face it, tends to draw equal measures of sympathy and condescension. I want neither, still considering a privilege to have spent a fulfilling nine years working with staff and students at NTU.

And although many saw that my case raised larger issues about the state of academia in Singapore, I did not want to echo the claim that my plight had national significance, as this could have been dismissed as self-serving and self-important, without necessarily advancing the discussion.

Unfortunately, by opting to err on the side of discretion, I allowed some less-informed opinions to propagate, including the truism that tenure decisions are increasingly rigorous and inherently subjective. 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. For the sake of closure, I should clarify.

I’ll confine myself to the barest of facts.* NTU’s official criteria for tenure are indistinguishable from its criteria for promotion to Associate Professor – promotion and tenure go together. In 2009, I was promoted to Associate Professor. I was told I had met all the necessary criteria.

As for why the university took the exceptional step of withholding tenure from a faculty member who it decided had earned promotion, I will only say that I was assured categorically that this had nothing to do with my research and scholarship, teaching or service, and also not because I had conducted myself inappropriately in any way.

Similarly, in 2010, no academic reasons were cited when the university leadership decided to turn down my school’s request to re-appoint me as head of journalism.

In 2012, when the university suggested that the school put me through the tenure process again, I assented in order to allow it to set right what had been left unresolved in 2009. Unfortunately, the university once again could not bring itself to follow through on what it had described to me as a “clear” academic opinion that I had already earned tenure in 2009. Thus, my contract ended in February 2014, with no possibility of renewal.

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. Fortunately, peers – including senior colleagues in NTU and the Wee Kim Wee Schoolexternal reviewers and others with knowledge of my case – spoke up for me. Thanks to them, foreign universities I dealt with subsequently could see past the cloud of controversy.

Let me stress that NTU’s tenure decision was problematic not because my subjective opinion of myself differed from my employer’s academic appraisal of me. (To object to that would have gone against the work ethic that I have tried to apply throughout my professional life – to do my best, and leave it to my bosses to decide whether my best is good enough.)

Rather, the real issue was that my employer’s ultimate actions were inconsistent with its own positive assessment of my academic performance.

Among the colleagues who were saddened and mystified was one kindly soul who popped into my office to commiserate. On her way out, she remarked on how I had arranged my furniture. My desk was positioned to face the window, which meant that my back was to the door – a big fengshui faux pas. My two tall bookshelves were also all wrong. They faced me, and the books were pushed deep in. The result: multiple shelf edges pointing at me like so many knives, she said, karate-chopping the air for emphasis.

In five years of conversations, this colleague’s good-natured remarks count as the most internally coherent theory about why things went wrong between me and NTU leadership. Alternative explanations may be more accurate – yet make less sense.

When a journalist friend from Guangzhou heard this story, she presented me with a pair of cheerful soft toys, comical updates on traditional Chinese guardian lions.

To protect me from negative forces in future, she said.

Since then, things have turned out more positively than I had a right to expect. For some years, I had been eyeing Hong Kong as the best place to move to, should I want or need to leave Singapore. I admired the city’s media departments both for the quality of their scholarship as well as for the way they engaged with issues facing their tumultuous society. The location would also allow me to continue studying Asia’s media up close and interacting with its vibrant freedom of expression community. It was a bittersweet irony that, when I was forced to start searching, universities in Hong Kong welcomed me more warmly than did university administrators at home.

But, let me be clear that the handful of decision-makers who have made it impossible for me to continue on the academic track in Singapore have no say over  my sense of belonging to my country or my vocation. That power resides instead in those whom I care about and respect, like the many, many friends, professional peers, students, fellow citizens and strangers who spoke up and reached out.

Thank you.

I’m sorry your effort was in vain, but it did help cushion a rocky ride.

Above all, the many kind words of support gave me the priceless privilege of being able to look back with no regrets. Even with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what I know now, I can say I would not have done my job any differently.

The abundance of good wishes I’ve received, I’ll bring with me to my new university.

And, just in case, I will also pack my two guardian lions.



* It would be impolite and unnecessary to divulge the contents of one-on-one conversations with university leaders that I assume were conducted in confidence. The information above is either on the public record or comes from a more formal meeting in 2010 with the then university leadership, observed by a member of the Board of Trustees and minuted by NTU’s HR director.

Check Also

I Don’t Help My Husband With Chores As I Can’t Leave Work At 5pm, It’s Gender Discrimination!

Women like her must be allowed to earn more, travel less for work, and leave office early everyday. Do you agree? Or are netizens overreacting?