KAIST mired in internal conflicts
By Na Jeong-ju
The turmoil inside the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), one of the country’s elite schools, is showing signs of escalating further, damaging the school’s reputation at home and abroad.
The conflict between KAIST President Suh Nam-pyo and students and professors is now entering a new phase after the school’s alumni association as well as politicians called for prompt action by board members to resolve what they call a leadership crisis.
Their intervention raises pressure on Suh, whose fate has become increasingly uncertain amid intensifying campaigns by students and professors to oust him.
His departure appears to be only a matter of time. The alumni association, led by Samsung Electronics executive Lim Hyung-kyu, urged the school last week to create an emergency committee in order to determine Suh’s fate.
“The persistent internal dispute and the distrust of Suh’s leadership among students and the faculty have dented KAIST’s reputation. We are deeply concerned about this situation,” the association said in a statement. “We propose the setup of an emergency panel to discuss the school’s future and whether to maintain the current leadership.”
The association’s move has dealt a setback to the beleaguered 76-year-old former MIT professor.
Suh is embroiled in disputes over the patents of technologies developed by KAIST professors while conducting school-funded research projects. Some professors have complained that many technologies they developed were registered in his name.
Equally pressing is the series of suicides inside the school since last year. Five students and a professor have taken their own lives, which critics say were a result of Suh’s reckless push for restructuring. He has introduced programs to spur competition among students as well as within the faculty since becoming the school’s president in 2007. In 2010 he secured a second four-year term.
“Suh has advocated extreme competition among students and professors to boost KAIST’s global profile. His excessive ambition and arbitrary school management made everybody unhappy here,” said a professor, asking not to be named.
The professors’ association last month launched a campaign to oust Suh after a majority of professors voted against him. A survey conducted by the students’ association also showed that 74.4 percent of KAIST students don’t want him to remain as president. Some 87 percent of respondents said they don’t trust Suh.
KAIST insiders say the dispute over the patents raised questions about his ethics.
Last year, the education ministry revealed that the school paid millions of won in pension to Suh although he was not entitled to subscribe to a private school pension when he was appointed at the age of 70.
It was also found that of the $60,000 in additional allowances that can be awarded to the KAIST president per year, Suh received $51,700 in incentives without any evaluation of his achievements. The ministry said the pension enrollment and the incentive payments are in violation of pension laws and KAIST regulations. The ministry also detected 23 administrative and financial violations, ordering the school to take punitive measures against 177 members of staff.
“An increasing number of students and professors have turned their back on Suh because he has never listened to complaints from them, causing trouble inside and outside of the school,” said Kim Do-han, head of the students’ council. “The only way to normalize school operations is for him to resign immediately.”
Everyone is unhappy
KAIST was established in 1984 and admitted students who placed in the top 1 percent of the state-run College Scholastic Ability Test, which made it obviously the toughest university to get accepted into.
Since the school is led by some of the brightest minds in the country and the fact that it nurtured aspiring scientists over the years, the government financially supported the school through tuition and dormitory stipends.
But when Suh became president of KAIST in 2007, he attempted to change the tuition policy and had students that did not make a certain cut in their grades pay for their own tuition, adding fuel to the already competitive environment the students were immersed in. Among the students who committed suicide, two of them were extremely stressed due to low grades.
Some have also pointed out that the overall atmosphere at the school, such as having to live in dormitories and being separated from regular social activities, in addition to the immense stress from their keeping up with their studies, combined to push students to their deaths.
“There are a lot of university students who still don’t know who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Pushing them to drastic conditions such as intense competition can lead them to become confused, depressed and even commit suicide,” said Kwak Keum-ju, a psychology professor at Seoul National University.
Despite growing calls for his resignation, many KAIST board members are known to side with Suh, and some say it is improper to discuss his dismissal.
However, some professors and students are expected to continue to demand he quit. Outside calls for Suh’s resignation are also growing. Education ministry officials are discontent with Suh, who often criticized the nation’s education system.
The main opposition Democratic United Party is also taking issue with the conflicts inside KAIST. Its former chairman Sohn Hak-kyu last week met with representatives of the students’ council and the professors’ association and vowed to make efforts to address their demands.