Suh Nam-pyo vs. Guus Hiddink
There is one big unmistakable similarity between Suh Nam-pyo, president of the state-run elitist science and engineering school, and Guus Hiddink, the Dutch football coach who led the Korean national team during the 2002 World Cup.
Both came to Korea to provide help and expertise ― Suh to energize KAIST at a time when its original 1971 foundational spirit of nurturing technological know-how for the nation was foundering, and Hiddink to raise the level of Korean soccer by many notches.
Both men made great contributions but other than this, there are few if any similarities between them.
Hiddink decided to pack and leave immediately after the World Cup ended. Buoyed by the team’s first-ever, possibly last-ever fourth-place finish, the nation begged him to stay just a bit longer.
He left, saying that it was time for both Korea and himself to move on.
For a while after he left, the Hiddink phenomenon continued, manifesting in a fad to emulate his coaching style throughout society.
In contrast, Suh, a highly-qualified mechanical engineer who earned a bachelor of science degree and a master’s from MIT, a P.h.D at Carnegie-Mellon University and led an engineering department in the blue-ribbon U.S. National Science Foundation, decided to stay with KAIST for a second four-year term that will end in 2014.
The 76-year-old, a Korean-born naturalized American, came to KAIST in the hope that he would devote the last chapter of his life to helping his motherland. Korea also expected him to invigorate the nation’s technological prowess.
Everything appeared to go smoothly at first.
Suh was hailed as the innovator that the school and its sponsor, the government, had hoped for.
His reform package was characterized by two initiatives. English was adopted as the language in which lectures were to be given and underachieving students were told to pay tuition in a school where all expenses were covered by the state.
Suh’s experiment would have continued had there not been a series of student suicides.
Critics claim that the students were put under enormous stress in the school, causing some “misfits” to take their lives.
The mandatory use of English in classrooms was discounted as something that hampered the student-professor communication, forcing them to study English when they had to do research.
The tuition scheme caused him a great deal of criticism for fostering an unhealthy level of competition among the students.
He stood fast and prevailed, although his reputation was tarnished, but he still had time to pack and leave, disregarding his KAIST stint as a bad experience.
He has since been facing a rebellion from professors that, according to many signs has passed the point of no return. He was accused of stealing a patent from a professor but has recently been cleared as a result of police investigations. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology is obviously unhappy with Suh, and has set up a panel of experts who some argue are trying to kick out the KAIST president.
What sort of state do you think Suh is now in after years of ordeal? Is he devastated by a relentless wave of criticism targeting him?
Even if he was, he didn’t show it during a one-and-half hour interview at The Korea Times last week.
He said that he came to KAIST for his own "selfish" reasons. “My children can’t speak Korean and I have seven grandchildren who are from interracial marriages,” he said. “I am here to do what I can do for the nation that only I among my family am certain is my motherland.”
Regarding the student suicides, he said that there were factors other than an atmosphere for excessive competition and decided not to continue, perhaps feeling it sounded too defensive.
Then, he said, “In research, we are our own biggest competitor,” adding that as a state-sponsored institute, KAIST should produce the best research results.
“Students were told to use English in our school when they applied,” he said. “If they didn’t think that they could, they should not have applied for KAIST in the first place.”
He didn’t look like he was ready to quit anytime soon. For all his faults and flaws, he looks like he is trying his best to stick to his contract with Korea.
It is time that we should start to try and keep our side of the bargain not for Suh but for ourselves. After all, we invited him and allowed him to get his second term. We should let him serve until the end of his contract and decide whether his KAIST stint was a service or disservice.