Time to go
Top college needs new leadership
KAIST, the nation’s most prestigious engineering university, is going through a crisis over whether its president should leave the school.
If colleges were like nations, the decision would be far easier: Up to 80 percent of professors and 75 percent of students have called for Suh Nam-pyo to step down. Yet KAIST is a national university and its president claims he has support from a ``solid (utterly silent?) majority” of school members.
As in most conflicts, neither side can be completely right or wrong in this ugly confrontation. What’s happening there, however, does not stop at KAIST’s internal trouble but reveals the naked truth of Korea’s educational problems.
Suh’s current predicament comes in stark contrast to six years ago when he arrived at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology holding high a banner of reform.
The Korean-American’s goal was to turn KAIST into Korea’s MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) where he used to teach. So he toughened the screening for professors’ promotion and tenure, mandated the use of only English in all lectures and stripped students failing to earn a grade point average of 3.0 of scholarships. The school’s global ranking soared and donations rushed in.
Everything seemed to be okay ― at least to outsiders ― until 2011 when four KAIST students and one professor killed themselves. This was shocking even in a country with a notoriously high suicide rate, especially among students. Suh has since backed down from most of his reforms and seems to see few reasons, or wrongdoings, for voluntarily leaving his post in the middle of his second four-year term. ``The reform must go on,” he said.
Which is exactly why he must leave now. How can a school president opposed by an overwhelming majority, at least by objective opinion polls, administer even daily duties, let alone push ahead with reform? Suh argues there is external pressure to expel him, but neither students nor taxpayers are interested in school politics.
What matters is the direction and tempo of the reform. Among the three major changes, we can only agree with stricter screening system for faculty, provided it is done in an objective and merit-based manner. The English-only lecturing, which quickly spread to other Korean schools as probably the first such case among non-English-speaking countries, has long proved to have more disadvantages than advantages in terms of pursuing scholastic depth. The punitive tuition system based on only GPA can retrograde to single-track education, smothering creative ability.
And Suh did all this largely through one-way communication. The campus is full of relentless competition and grades-are-everything stress but little harmony or even friendship.
A university president should be either a good scholar or an effective administrator. More than anything else, however, he or she should be an educator with students’ well-being at heart. If Suh were this, he should have stepped down after the second suicide.
What KAIST and the Korean educational community need now warmer-hearted, more humane leaders rather than ruthless pushers.