KAIST chief speareheads hiring reform
When TIME's Nov.22 U.S. edition hits the newsstands next week, readers will be introduced to a transportation breakthrough invented by a team of researchers at KAIST, the nation's top institute of higher learning in science research.
The online electric vehicle (OLEV), powered by magnets from underground lines and recharged while on the go, was selected by the magazine as one of its "50 Best Inventions in 2010."
The system, the first of its kind in the world, was designed to enable all electric vehicles to operate with one-fifth of the battery size and at one-third the cost compared to the past.
It's a primary example of what KAIST President Suh Nam-pyo defines as the main purpose of a research-oriented university: contribution to solving problems faced by humanity.
"My take on a good university is one that concentrates
on and finds practical solutions to resolving mankind's problems," Suh said during a recent interview with The Korea Times. "It is not the school that produces the best thesis."
The former mechanical engineer, who spent 35 years teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is convinced that EEWS (Energy, Environment, Water and Sustainability) should be the focus of future science research as green technology becomes increasingly in demand.
KAIST will establish a Graduate School for Green Transportation, as part of the state institution’s initiatives to advance environment-friendly research. It is the world's first graduate school specialized in green transportation and the development of related technology, implementing multidisciplinary and convergent studies through collaboration between academia, government and industry.
"There is a pressing need for research scholars to update conventional technology. I go to international science conferences, and sometimes find people working on what was being researched 50 years go," the 74-year-old scholar said.
He believes that an innovative EEWS venture like the OLEV will spark the transformation of the 39-year-old KAIST from a national university into a global science and engineering institution.
With an illustrious academic and government career behind him in the U.S., Suh is a Korean-American success story.
Born in Korea in 1936, he moved to the U.S. in his teens with his father who taught at Harvard University, and entered MIT in 1955 as a freshman.
Suh started teaching at MIT in 1970 and eventually became the director of the Park Center for Complex Systems (formerly the Manufacturing Institute) and the head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1991 to 2001. He still holds the Ralph E. & Eloise F. Cross Professor, Emeritus post at MIT.
In the mid 1980s, he served for four years as assistant director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, at the appointment of former President Ronald Reagan.
Many believe that these unique experiences within and outside the academic campus in the United States, home to the best and most competitive universities in the world, have shaped Suh's reform-oriented mindset.
Since his 2006 appointment as KAIST president, Suh has led the Daejeon-based university through what his supporters call an "academic revolution."
Suh was reappointed to his post for an unprecedented second four-year term in July.
"I think some people were concerned that if I left after the initial term, the school would take a turn back to its old ways," he said, explaining what he thought was the reason for a second appointment.
"Also, Korean people share my conviction that we can produce top universities in the same way we have produced electronics of global recognition."
Despite resistance from some faculty and students, he has installed extreme reform measures such as a strictly merit-based tenure system, which was an unwelcomed concept for many professors with an "iron rice-bowl" mentality.
KAIST also runs an all English-campus, a controversial measure that is slowly spreading to other campuses like its rival POSTECH, in Pohang, South Gyeongsang Province.
In an unprecedented move for a state university, it has required underperforming students to shoulder their own tuition.
Under Suh's leadership, the university has climbed up the ladder in the world's university rankings.
When he took office, KAIST was ranked 198th by the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Last year it moved up to 69th.
In was ranked 21st in the technology and IT subject field, making it the only Korean university to be ranked in the top 50 in the category.
KAIST's reform measures have subsequently inspired in other universities across the country a drive for the level of competition, discipline and determination that have sorely been lacking on Korean campuses.
"The general level of Korean universities will improve as a result of KAIST's continued endeavors for becoming a university of global prestige."
"Let's hire the best people"
During his time so far at KAIST, Suh has focused, above all else, on hiring "the best people in all departments" that are duly equipped with the expertise and drive to nurture the next generation of "thought leaders."
He personally sits in on interviews for hiring new professors.
Through the tenure system, the school has shed around 25 percent of the school's 550 faculty members.
His hiring system has also increased the number of non-Korean professors, who now account for 14.2 percent of the entire teaching staff. And around 10 percent of the school's 10,000 students are from outside Korea.
In an unprecedented move by a Korean business school, Suh hired Dr. Ravi Kumar, former vice dean at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California (USC), to head the KAIST Business school.
The all-English campus project is taking root, with 90 percent of the undergraduate courses taught in English.
Suh is convinced that these steps will eventually increase the competitiveness of KAIST globally.
'Can-do spirit' equals excellence
Suh's ultimate goal is clear ― to make KAIST one of the top universities in the world.
While KAIST is still behind some of its Asian peers, Suh's drive has the power to make one agree with his belief in KAIST's potential.
At 74, Suh still retains the energy of a young scholar and was on his way to a trip to the UAE when he sat down with The Korea Times at a hotel in central Seoul.
"I firmly believe that KAIST could become the world's best university," he said.
"I find that the difference between the best and average schools is whether they have the can-do spirit or not."
"The average ones spend too much time questioning and hesitating. They say 'how can we research this when other schools haven't done it?"
He underlined self-confidence and a positive outlook as indispensable qualities in researchers and scholars.
These qualities, coupled with his fund-raising skills and complete dedication to advancing Korea’s higher education, have also helped him attain unique accomplishments as KAIST president.
He has doubled KAIST's budget to $421-million and raised almost $167-million in private funding.
These funds have been spent on expanding the research facilities and campuses.
Whi is Suh Nam-pyo
Suh Nam-pyo, is the Ralph E. & Eloise F. Cross professor emeritus, M.I.T, and took office in July 2006. He was reappointed for another four-year term this year.
Suh is well-known as a reform-minded leader both in educational and science fields. The 74-year-old renovated the college admissions system in Korea, which used to focus on just the test scores of applicants, by launching the recruitment of all freshmen through a holistic admission process.
He is also credited with generating fierce competition among faculty members by setting up stricter standards for professors seeking tenure positions.
In 1984, Suh took a leave of absence from MIT to accept a Presidential Appointment at the National Science Foundation where he was in charge of engineering. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to this position and the U.S. Senate confirmed his appointment.
He is the author of over 300 papers and seven books, holds more than 60 patents, and has edited several books. Suh was educated at Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School (1955), MIT (B.S., 1959, and M.S., 1961) and Carnegie-Mellon University (Ph.D., 1964).
He has received many awards and honors. He has seven honorary doctoral degrees: Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell in 1988, Doctor of Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1986, Honorary Doctor (Tekn. Hedersdoktor) from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden, in 2000, Doctor of Engineering Honoris Causa, University of Queensland in 2007, Doctor Scientiarum Honoris Causa from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology in 2007, Doctor of Science and Technology from Carnegie-Mellon University, in 2008, and Honoris Causa from Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Rumania, in 2009.
He is the recipient of the 2009 ASME Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.