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[In-depth interview]Korean president is the first of his kind

My biggest aspiration is to open a new door to the next generation of Asians and be an inspiration to them.

Feb 07,2007
Kang Sung-mo
Kang Sung-mo, the first Korean to assume a top position at a U.S. university, likes to be called a challenger rather than a scholar. His quiet voice and gentle manner make people wonder why he wants to be called a challenger. But they will realize why once they talk to him for 10 minutes.
The 61-year-old engineering professor, who moved to the United States at the age of 24, will now be the president of the University of California at Merced. Mr. Kang said he always knew that he could never succeed if he is only as good as other Americans ― he has to excel to succeed. Korea Daily met with Mr. Kang, who has been busy ahead of his inauguration on March 1.

Q. You are the first Korean university president in the United States in 100 years of Korean immigration history here. Congratulations.
A. Thank you. I am really honored and glad to become the head of this world-class university. But I also feel enormous responsibility to be a good role model for other Korean immigrants here. But quite honestly I’m also thrilled to be given a new role and new work. I still have about a month before I start, but there are stacks of work to do, which makes me feel nervous already. I have been meeting with senior university employees and school donors and listening to their opinions since I received the appointment.

You are one of very few Asians who have become university presidents in this country.
About 6 percent of the faculty on 10 University of California campuses are Asians. But the figure plunges to 1.5 percent for faculty members who have become college deans or higher. It is still a very small figure given the Asian population in the state of California.

Tell us how you are going to manage Merced as the president.
Our university is a relatively new one, built near Yosemite National Park. This area has been growing rapidly. Its population has risen nearly 60 percent over the past 10 years. The number of students, currently about 1,300, is about to rise to 2,000 in the upcoming fall season. Our goal is to increase the number of students to 25,000 within 20 years by balancing growth between the engineering and science departments and the humanities and social studies departments. We already have enough land for the expansion, and are also planning to offer more benefits for students from low-income households.

What will be your major policy focus?
The most important project is establishing a medical school within five years. Also, I’d like to create what I call a “bio valley” on campus for life science studies. The major industry in this region is agriculture, so I would like our school to take advantage of that. I would also like to help revitalize the area economy by attracting more manufacturing and plant projects here.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing U.S. universities?
U.S. universities respect and encourage diversity and individuality among students, and encourage lively discussions anytime. But there is a problem ― elementary, primary and secondary schools have failed to offer proper science and math education. The United States needs to actively invest in science and math if it still wants to be a leader in the world’s technology industries.

Any challenges as a minority in this country?
Of course there were challenges. I was appointed dean of the engineering school at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2001. But faculty members took issue with my distinct accent, which troubled me a great deal. I was born in Korea and immigrated to the United States. I think second-generation immigrants who are born in the United States should play a more active role. We need more role models in education, beyond law or medicine. My biggest aspiration is to open a new door to the next generation and to be an inspiration to them. I personally admire Dr. Chang-Lin Tien, who served as a chancellor at UC Berkeley. I strive to become an example in the education field just like he did.

Do you have any advice for Korean students?
I believe that anyone here can achieve her dream as long as she makes enough effort. The fact that I, just one of many Korean immigrants here, have become a chancellor at the University of California proves that the United States is still a land of opportunity. Despite many challenges like racial discrimination, you can still achieve your dream here and earn the respect of others as long as you work hard enough. You have to work far harder than others. I still remember what my academic advisor here told me when I was young. The professor, who was from the Philippines, told me, “Asians who are just as good as whites will not be chosen. You will be a winner only when you are far better than the whites.” Since then I have constantly reminded myself of what he said and worked hard to become the best in the electronic engineering field.

Do you have anything to say to the Korean community?
One of the biggest duties of a college chancellor is attracting more funds from outside and encouraging more research and education opportunities on campus. Dr. Chang-Lin Tien drew a lot of financial support from the Chinese community during his tenure. I also need help and support from the Korean community. I am ready to go anywhere, anytime if there is an individual or company, not only in the United States but also in Korea, that is willing to provide financial support for research. If Korea takes a leading role in this area, it will help the Korean community establish itself in U.S. society and improve its image here.

What kind of opinions about you make you most happy?
I was told I contributed a lot to the progress of UC Santa Cruz while I was dean of the engineering school over the past five years, and that made me feel so proud and happy. I like college. I enjoy taking to students. I still remember the students I taught at the University of Illinois [Urbana-Champaign campus]. Professor Chung Sung-wook at Yonsei University, Professor Kim Chul-woo at Korea University, Professor Baek Kwang-ryeon at ChungAng University and Professor Choi Wook-chul at Kwangwoon University were my students. I am happy that I can live the life of a researcher for my whole life.


By Jang Yun-hwa Korea Daily hawon@joongang.co.kr


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