Dissent & Resistance at Yale-NUS College

Andrew M. Bailey

5 October 2019

On Blame and Accountability

In the aftermath of events described earlier, public scrutiny, outrage, and speculation continued. Much of it was directed at the would-be-instructor in plainly unfair ways. That instructor, Mr. Alfian Sa'at, eventually spoke out. Mr. Alfian reported that Yale-NUS' communication with him about the module's cancellation did not cohere with the story it told the public, and shared evidence, including email and WhatsApp conversations with administrative staff. A central issue in subsequent discussion was whether Mr. Alfian was in fact to blame for the module's cancellation or whether he had been unfairly scapegoated.

This framing is unfortunate. What began as a serious communications breakdown (between the academic arm of the College, and its administrative staff, and Mr. Alfian) has turned into a public feud about who is to blame that is unlikely to be productive.

My own view is that inadequate structure and processes are to blame, and senior College administrators are responsible for fixing that. (These two judgements roughly track the distinction philosophers of moral responsibility draw between "attributability" and "accountability").

Among those who are neither to be blamed nor to be held accountable for fixing things up are: (a) junior staff members, or (b) Mr. Alfian himself. I suspect staff were caught between the goal of getting a charismatic and prominent local figure to offer a valuable module (Mr. Alfian is a well-known playwright with around 25,000 Facebook followers, who has the ear of every opposition media and artistic personality on the island -- this isn't exactly peer-to-peer communication), a deadline, and a new and not entirely clear process for approving and launching these experiential modules. I think Mr. Alfian himself, who had plainly good intentions, was similarly put into a tight spot by poor communications and a deadline.

It may appear that there is a serious conflict between the College's "official story" and what Mr. Alfian has shared, and that this shows that someone is lying. This is not the case. The conversations Mr. Alfian references are real. Mr. Alfian has shared screenshots; I've seen others as well. And the College's story is true. I’ve directly confirmed this in some detail myself, in various ways; trust but verify is my maxim here. The curriculum committee really did, for example, accept the module pending revisions (conditionally), even though the content and import of this was not communicated clearly to Mr. Alfian and in a timely way. No one, literally not a single person involved, as far as I can tell, is lying or malicious or anything like that. There was, rather, some rather bad miscommunication between staff, faculty, and Mr. Alfian, especially about expected revisions to the module.

This could have been an internal procedural snafu, of minor interest at most. It was not. Mr. Alfian is distressed and feels betrayed by the College; these are not unreasonable reactions. Their harm is further magnified by ongoing public outrage or speculation. This is all profoundly sad. My hope is that the College will find ways to repair its relationship with Mr. Alfian and to clear his name of any untoward charges.

Last updated: Saturday 5 October 21:26 (GMT+8). The opinions shared here are my own; I don't speak for Yale-NUS College or in any official capacity.