Top tech university in trouble over a series of suicides
Suh Nam-pyo, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, walks out of his office at the school in Daejeon, Monday. The president is facing a critical time with all eyes on him and the school due to the suicides of four students and one professor in less than four months.
/ Korea Times file by Shin Sang-sun
By Han Sang-hee
Will the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), which has been thrown into the worst crisis in its history, be able to clean house and get back on its feet again? Not any time soon, that’s for sure.
As if the previous four suicides were not enough to put pressure on the prestigious school and its president, a KAIST professor was found dead at his home Sunday — also a suicide.
The 54-year-old professor left behind a note saying that he was sorry for his wife and that he loved her, but did not mention anything about the previous deaths.
According to the police, Park was facing an investigation over research expenses following an audit by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. He was expected to face punishment and possible indictment due to alleged misuse of 40 million won ($36,000).
Growing demands outside
Following the news of yet another death at the elite school, various organizations and students stepped up, demanding the school adopt proper reform measures as soon as possible.
Organizations led by professors, including the National Association of Professors for a Democratic Society (NAPDS), the Korean Professors Union and the Korea Progressive Academy Council, held a press conference demanding KAIST President Suh Nam-pyo step down.
“KAIST is a place that experimented with an unprecedented competitive environment and excessive English education methods which led to the deaths of four students. Students got to learn the skill to survive in a dog eat dog society and lost their ability to be creative,” NAPDS said. It added that Suh should step down as he made the environment where students had no choice but to take drastic action.
Meanwhile, the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) demanded an investigation of the school by the Board of Audit and Inspection, claiming that its policies, including the penalty tuition system, were illegal and obstructed the public interest.
“President Suh’s policies violate the Constitution that states the right to pursue happiness, not to mention the KAIST law that aims to nurture the brightest scientific minds in the country,” it said.
KAIST canceled classes Monday and Tuesday to hold student-professor conferences, but considering the demands from the public, students and professors, it seems it will take time for the school to come up with a solution, if any.
The student council plans to hold an expanded emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss future steps.
“It’s clear that the students that went to our school were not happy,” the student council wrote on its homepage.
“The reason why KAIST was at the center of Korea’s industrial development was because it provided an environment where high quality talented students could study as much as they liked. But now, we are suffocating between all these policies,” it added.
Fellow professors at KAIST also joined in the debate on whether some of the school’s policies are effective and plausible.
Professor Han Sang-geun from the department of mathematical science said that he was lecturing all in Korean from now on.
“English speaking lectures cut the personal contact between professors and students, thus drying up the students’ emotions,” he wrote on his Twitter page Saturday.
Another KAIST professor who refused to give his name also backed Prof. Han’s opinion, saying that it was an embarrassment that one of the best science schools in Korea was teaching lectures in English 100 percent rather than its mother tongue.
“Subjects such as mathematics and English cannot be learned and mastered in a short period of time, and having the students face such pain is wrong,” the professor wrote on the school’s homepage.
On the other hand, professor Moon Sue-bok from the department of computer science pointed out the need of a certain level of English proficiency in order to branch out into the international scene.
“Yes, there were students who could not follow the English lectures, but they do need to have at least 900 on their TOEIC scores,” she wrote.