KAIST chief not ready to quit
Suh vows to complete reforms
By Na Jeong-ju
KAIST, the country’s leading research university, is mired in an unprecedented internal conflict that has damaged the school’s reputation at home and abroad.
A group of KAIST professors have launched a campaign to oust its President Suh Nam-pyo, alleging that he stole the patent of technologies developed by a professor while conducting the school-funded Mobile Harbor research project.
Suh has refused to quit, calling their demand a politically motivated attempt to shake his leadership and nullify his reform programs.
Their feud is now entering a new phase after the police concluded last week following a months-long investigation that such allegations were false. The professors refuted the police’s claims, and the case was referred to the prosecution for further inquiry.
During a two-hour interview with The Korea Times on June 22, Suh criticized the professors for raising groundless accusations against him and vowed to continue his job to complete his given term.
“I will fight to the last. It’s not a personal matter. It’s about the history of KAIST. I’m feeling a sense of great responsibility,” Suh said.
Questions and answers are as follows:
Q: What made you decide to extend for another four-year term as KAIST president? You might have lived comfortably in the United States if you had returned to your home in Boston after completing your first term in 2010.
A: Simply put, that was because I didn’t accomplish my mission. Starting at this position, I vowed to make KAIST one of the best research universities in the world, in terms of the quality of the faculty and learning environment for students.
KAIST has many talented professors and smart students. However, there are some professors who interfere in school affairs and try to wield political influence. They are not the owners of this school. Of course, that’s not only in the case of KAIST, but a matter of culture in Korean universities.
At world-class universities, like Harvard and MIT, those who have excelled in their own fields are allowed to become leading professors. They give leading positions to only successful, talented professors. However, KAIST is too much swayed by such political professors.
Q: Has your experiment at KAIST been successful? If not, what are the criteria of success?
A: Currently, a generational change is taking place in the KAIST faculty.
In five years, the most “troublemaking” professors will leave the school. Most of them are in their 60s and resistant to change, but should retire when they become 65 years old under the current rule. During my term, KAIST selected many talented and young professors from various fields. They are the hope of this school.
In Korea, professors think they are privileged. They think they should be treated better than school staff. They even don’t have lunch together with them. But they should realize that they are their colleagues. When I came to the school, I saw they were using separate tables at the school cafeteria. I told them not to do so, but it’s difficult to change them.
They should learn the spirit of mutual respect. They should respect those who have contributed to society. We should help each other and join hands to make KAIST a better school.
One of my jobs is to create an environment, in which talented, hard-working people can take leading positions, not the stubborn, old and political professors. I’m building such a system.
The system, however, will fail if my future successor collaborates with such hopeless professors.
The professors’ council has told me to quit and leave this school. But I won’t do so. That’s not because I’m the only one who is suitable for this position, but because my resignation will leave a bad precedent in KAIST’s history.
Robert Laughlin, my predecessor, had to quit early due to resistance from the professors’ council. It’s really shameful. Such a thing should not happen again.
In that sense, how I leave this school is very important for KAIST as well as South Korea. I will complete my term as guaranteed by the law and work hard to bring positive changes to KAIST until then. I won’t succumb to their pressure.
Q: You’ve taken a series of measures to take KAIST to a higher level. However, it seems that not everybody likes your ideas. What do you think is the root cause of the ongoing struggle inside the school?
A: Our goal is to become one of the best science and technology universities by solving the most important problems of humanity in the 21st century.
What we have been trying to do is to make KAIST one of the best research universities in the world, which is a challenging and difficult task. To achieve this goal, we collected the opinions of each department through the head of the department in 2006. Through this process, we developed a five-year strategic plan. We followed it since then with minor modifications as we proceeded to implement it.
I adopted new tenure rules to promote and protect the professor who is an outstanding scholar and teacher as well as a merit-based incentive pay system to reward contributions made by each professor.
I also gave permission to each department to hire as many highly qualified professors as they can find, provided that the faculty candidate meets our high quality standards. The recruiting will continue until the total number of KAIST faculty members reaches 700. We now have over 600 professors.
To strengthen research capabilities, the school undertook research for EEWS (energy, environment, water, and sustainability), HRHR (high-risk high-return) and HED (healthcare, education, and defense).
It is now promoting interdisciplinary research through the KAIST Institute and strengthening the field of engineering systems by developing important systems such as OLEV (On-Line Electric Vehicle) and Mobile Harbor. We also provide start-up funds for new professors.
The new policies are not easy things to accept and implement. Although that was not the intention, some of these policies and changes have made the life of some professors, staff, and students uncomfortable and difficult to accept.
The most difficult part for the faculty is related to tenure and merit pay. Also some professors are not in favor of teaching in English.
The most difficult part for the student is the limited number of times they can retake the same course and the need to graduate in four years in the case of undergraduates. Also English as the language of instruction is difficult for some students.
Q: How do you feel about the professors’ move to kick you out?
A: I abide by the law. I was reappointed as the president of KAIST in accordance with due process.
KAIST cannot create a culture where disgruntled professors can remove presidents by making false accusations. Any reasonable demands of the faculty should be honored and accommodated, but the basic goal of making KAIST one of the best universities in the world cannot be compromised.
Korean taxpayers who have supported KAIST all these years expect us to create a great university they can be proud of. We are going to get there, because a large number of KAIST professors are outstanding scholars and teachers, publishing many seminal papers and creating new, important technologies.
Our students and graduates are also getting more recognition throughout the world for their excellent contributions as researchers, scholars, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and opinion leaders.
Q: How do you feel about the professors’ allegations about the patent? Have you ever thought about taking legal action against them?
A: It is very regrettable that I have to deal with such allegations. I feel that none of our community members including myself should be judged based on unfounded rumors.
Of course, nothing can be sacred. Professors and students can surely criticize or put forward different opinions and suggestions regarding the way I manage the school, but this should be done in a manner that upholds mutual respect. It is an unfortunate chapter in the history of KAIST, which I hope will not occur again by handling this situation wisely.
Q: What are you focusing on recently to develop the school?
A: We are now working hard to implement I-Four Education, an initiative for seamless integration of education and high technology, which is being adopted by universities in other countries.
The concept is a new way of letting our students learn better by making use of advanced technology, letting our students take the initiative in learning, and elevating the level of deep understanding through group interaction.