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The curious case of Cherian George

The Nanyang Technological University probably has its reasons for denying Cherian George tenure a second time, but in the public interest, it might want to make its reasons known. Those who have been tracking the matter online – not on MSM – may know by now that Dr George might have to leave the university within a year, according to NTU rules.

That’s what students who met Dr Benjamin Hill Detenber, chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, told yahoo news.

“Dr Detenber said tenure-track professors employed in NTU first get a three-year contract before they are put up for consideration for a tenure contract. If they fail to get a tenure contract at the first attempt, they would then be granted another three-year contract. If they fail at the second attempt, they would be then allowed to stay in the University for another year, before being asked to leave,” the students said in a statement.

What’s the reason for the outcry?
Academics seek tenure for job security reasons among other things, and rejections are common. According to NTU, close to one in two applications get rejected. But word that Dr George was rejected because he was not “up to standard’’ (I am using the word loosely here) has been greeted with disbelief. Even an academic on an external panel of reviewers thinks the proposition was ridiculous. One foreign academic even labelled him a “superstar’’. As for his students and ex-students, more than 800 were upset enough to pen a petition in his favour.

Going by what the students said, it was the University (capital U) which turned down the application – twice, even though the Wee Kim Wee school and the Faculty had endorsed it – twice. The School thought well enough of him to nominate him for a teaching scholarship in 2009 and put him in charge of the Asian Journalism Fellowship. Seems that the buck on who gets tenure stops at the Academic Affairs Council, a subset of the university’s board of trustees.

Now, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Does Dr George’s political views, including those of the state control of the media, have anything to do with denial of tenure? He has written two books, Contentious Journalism and the Internet, and Freedom from the Press, which do not put the State in a favourable light, but doesn’t paint the State all black either. (Yes, I’ve read both, even his earlier Air-conditioned Nation). I think he’s only outdone by Cheong Yip Seng, the former Editor-in-chief of SPH English and Malay Newspaper Division, in giving as accurate a picture of government-press relations as is possible. Go buy Cheong’s book, OB Markers. Of course, Dr George’s books are grounded in academic analysis, while Mr Cheong’s was more anecdotal.

So, clearly, one suspicion that arises is that his political views, including his presence at opposition forums, might have influenced the University’s decision to reject him. Fair or not, he has been put into an “anti-Estab’’ box, so to speak. In fact, endorsement of foreign academics might not even be good for his case!
To be sure, Dr George is no soft touch. Even in his journalist days, some newsmakers do not like views very much and, if I recall correctly, his last week as a journalist before he embarked for further studies was marked by an exchange between him and the Prime Minister’s Office over one of his articles.

Of course, there is no evidence that his political views have anything to do the tenure decision. How could anyone know of what happens in the room in which the University held its discussions – except the proverbial fly on the wall?
But his case has caught the eye of foreign academics who now gleefully point at Yale’s decision to site a campus in Singapore. You know the cause of the opposition: why would a university like Yale, a liberal arts institution, have anything to do with a place where academic freedom is not prized. Not good press for Singapore at all.

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Dr George hasn’t said a word about the controversy surrounding his tenure which makes one wonder if he was actually expecting the rejection. I suppose he is in an uncomfortable position. If the University makes a U-turn and gives him tenure now, it would seem like it caved in to public pressure. If it really has proper academic grounds for the rejection, then making it public would embarrass Dr George who would have had to defend his record. As for whether the rejection was politically motivated, does anyone really think it would come out to say “yes’’ and tell “why’’?

I’ve changed my mind about suggesting that the University make its reasons known. Because whatever it says now, it might not be believed and might even worsen things for Dr George.

Whatever happens, my best wishes to Cherian. May you always keep the flag of journalism flying.

Go to for
– The like-able Ms Lee Li Lian
– City Harvest trial delay
– Operators paying for the mess that people make

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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