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Critics denounce expat college hires

Last in a series

Oct 24,2009
Konkuk University surprised Korea and the rest of the world when it announced that it had appointed Alia Sabur as a full-time professor in its department of advanced technology fusion in February 2008.

Born in 1989, Sabur left public school in the fourth grade and earned a B.S. in applied mathematics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook at the age of 10 and graduated summa cum laude at 14. She then earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in material science and engineering from Drexel University.

Sabur made the headlines in Korea and other international media after the university’s announcement because she was named as the World’s Youngest Professor by the Guinness Book of World Records. The previous record holder was Colin Maclaurin who was appointed a professor of mathematics at 19 years and seven months of age in 1717.

Sabur, who signed a one-year contract with Konkuk University in February 2008 and began teaching there in June 2008, returned to her hometown of New York early this year, without renewing her contract.

“Sabur’s contract expired in February .?.?. the contract was simply just not renewed.?.?. she can come back anytime she wants,” Sun Woo-young, head of Konkuk University’s Office of International Affairs, said.

But another professor, who asked not to be named, said Sabur left Korea because she failed to adjust to her new life here. “She lacked teaching skills and students have complained about the poor quality of her classes,” the professor said. When Konkuk University unveiled Sabur’s appointment to the public, it expressed the hope that its students would be motivated to study with Sabur because they are around the same age.

Now that she’s gone, critics have denounced the university’s reckless choice. They argued that Konkuk University centered solely on recruiting her to boost the university’s publicity and reputation.

They said the university intentionally signed a contract with Sabur on Feb. 19, just few days before she turned 19 on Feb. 22, 2008, because it wanted to break the Guinness world record.

During her stay in Korea, Sabur only taught one class in applied materials engineering at the university and only handful of students - less than six - took her class. She had no research accomplishments, either. Lee Man-jong, who’s in the same department with Sabur, said her stay in Korea was too short to make substantial inroads in research.

Another professor said her leaving was understandable because she was young and it must have been difficult for her to teach in an overseas country.

“But the university’s reputation and Sabur’s reputation are dashed because of the university’s greed,” the professor said.

Critics say Sabur’s case shows Korea still recruits overseas academics as figureheads for boosting their publicity or reputation. Robert Laughlin, a 1998 Nobel Prize laureate in physics who was nominated as the president of Kaist, Korea’s top science and technology university, in July 2004 is another case in point.

When Laughlin took Kaist’s presidency with a four-year contract, he vowed he would instigate changes at the university in a bid to transform it into world-class research-focused university. The Nobel Prize laureate in physics, however, had to resign because of intense opposition.
In an e-mail interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Laughlin said his authority as Kaist president wasn’t as guaranteed as he had expected.

Salk Sung-ho, the senior Kaist official who led a plan to recruit Laughlin, said the Nobel laureate failed to continue his presidency because he had a little knowledge about Kaist’s distinct characteristics.

“It’s the government’s fault because it didn’t fully explain these unique characteristics to Laughlin,” Salk said.

The situation is the same in the public service sector.

William A. Ryback, the former deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, was appointed as a special adviser for Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service in October 2007.

Ryback left the position after six months because of what he called the reclusive nature of the public service sector in Korea.

Lee Seung-hee, a former Democratic Party representative who led the drive to recruit Ryback, said the public service sector community needs to be changed if it wants to inject distinguished overseas talent.

“For the sake of the future, the community should be more open and flexible about accepting expats,” Lee said.






By Special Reporting Team [mijukim@joongang.co.kr]
Special Reporting Team Ahn Hai-ri, Lee Jong-chan, Choe Sun-uk, Lee Jeong-bong




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