Jeremy Fernando and the justice he deserves

The National University of Singapore sacked teaching staff, Dr Jeremy Fernando, over “inappropriate” behaviour. Two students had complained to the university of sexual harassment and assault. One was allegedly pressured into sexual acts, while he had made physical advances on the other.

The Straits Times raised his past writings, in particular, a portion where he condones sexual relations between teachers and students, where he mooted the idea that “insemination” can be a part of teaching and could open up students and teachers to possibilities. According to an ex-student, Fernando often discussed pushing moral boundaries. While the Straits Times article did not explicitly link his musings to his actual behaviour, the connection is apparent.

It’s not the only account of his support for such relations. In a response to the University’s “sex for grades” scandal in 2012, he said the “categorical dismissal” of relationships – including sexual ones –  between teachers and students, “sterilises the one who teaches. This was “the devastation of the possibility of thought itself,” since one must be open to such a possibility, before dismissing it. To Fernando, the disgraced Professor (who was in love with his student) could only be faulted for being unprofessional, and nothing more. The court eventually cleared the Professor of corruption, but said he had abused his position. 

Book Cover: Why hasn’t JB already disappeared.(2017) in which he expresses sentiments the university now clarifies that it objects to.

Although the university claims to not have had “red flags” raised about the writings in his self-published book but seeing as his position was made public, his sexual advances on students shouldn’t come as a surprise. This rests squarely on NUS’s oversight – that they let into the University, an academic decrying teacher-student boundaries.

While the University has since released more information about the timeline of the investigative process and its communications with the victims and Fernando, an initial bugbear was against the University’s opaque dismissal of Fernando on 7 Oct and its relative silence thereafter till 18 Oct.

Sadly, NUS is no stranger to cases of perverse lecturers being charged with sexual offences. One wonders why immediate action was not taken? Were reputational risks part of the calculus? Was there debate on whether the academic’s actions warranted criminal censure despite both complaints being founded on the non-consensual nature of contact?

Finding a good basis for firing Fernando and not reporting the incident to the police would have been poor form on the University’s part, especially considering that the charges of him acting against the victims’ will should raise eyebrows. Fortunately, that’s since been resolved.

Left to right: Assoc Prof Pang; Prof Koh; and Assoc Prof Leong at the media briefing explaining the circumstances around the Fernando case. Photo Credit: NUS News

NUS made a report against Dr Fernando on Oct 21 “to fulfil its legal obligations” according to NUS Dean of Students and Associate Provost (Special Projects), Associate Professor Leong Ching. “In filing this report, NUS takes into consideration our obligations under the law, the need for transparency, and the need to protect the privacy and interests of all parties, including reasonable grounds for delay. As partial information about the matter was already public, a police report was imminent,” the Dean explained.

His case eerily echoes that of his own professor – feminist Avital Ronnell. The celebrated feminist faced accusations of sexual harassment from her student and was eventually found guilty by a tribunal. Fernando had apparently defended her. After a year off, the disgraced academic has returned to NYU, despite calls for her removal. 

For all its similarities, his case is different. Censure has come, and publicly so – this will increase with official investigations and a potential court case.

But this raises difficult questions that NUS ought to grapple with moving forward. Why does this keep happening? Has a liberal sexual ethic been normed such that infractions like these have occurred at the professorial level, on top of the multiple cases in the dorms? Is it time for universities to reconsider the intermingling of the sexes in dorms or perhaps a holistic strategy to address the rise in sex offender cases at NUS?