[OUTLOOK]Return the dignity to educationOrdinary people tend to regard university presidents highly. The chances of bumping into a university president at a noodle shop or a bar are low. University presidents are remote, and seem larger than life. That respect stems from expectations that university professors have profound knowledge, fine characters, noble behavior and experience.
At least that was the common perception until prime minister-designate Chang Sang, who served as Ewha Womans University president, drew criticism for alleged irregularities during the parliamentary hearings on her nomination.
The status and authority of a university president is falling. Ms. Chang did not clear up allegations about her son's U.S. citizenship, filing false addresses as part of real estate speculation and misrepresentation of her academic background, and she is only one of the long list of university presidents who have fallen into dishonor recently. Song Ja, the former president of Yonsei University, had to step down as minister of education because of alleged profiteering in Samsung Electronics stock when he was an outside director. Seoul National University president Lee Ki-jun resigned for similar reasons.
University presidents are not only hurt when they are looked at for appointments to high-ranking government positions. Recently a president of a public university was found to have acted as a broker for doctoral degrees. Park Hong, the former president of Sogang University, allegedly re-fused to pay a Tourism Promotion Development Fund fee at the airport recently. And university presidents are not regarded with esteem within the school anymore. While outsiders watched a show of ugly competition over university president positions, many universities endured a situation of having two presidents in one university during transition periods. A disabled university student won a suit a few weeks ago charging a university with infringement of his right to study. The university in question was mired in a power struggle among presidential candidates.
The collapse of university presidents' prestige is not a chance happening. Good personality and moral influence are not emphasized as qualifications for a university president these days. When universities began to face the need to become more competitive, persons who could attract large donations came to be preferred as university presidents. The direct election of university presidents, conducted under the name of democratization of the schools, served to the advantage of political candidates regardless of their integrity.
The changes in universities can be understood in the context of the changes in Korean politics that have taken place since the 1980s. Military dictatorships and the Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung administrations have hand-picked university presidents to fill important posts to give the public the sense that the government is looking for talented administrators, not political hacks.
Before Chun Doo Hwan came to power, college professors were rarely given important government posts. But Mr. Chun appointed Kim Sang-hyup, Korea University's president, as prime minister. His successor, Roh Tae-woo, named Lee Hyun-jae, Seoul National University's president, as prime minister. Since then, universities have boasted close ties with the administration; university professors and presidents make up more than half the list of the 16 prime ministers named since 1988. University presidencies have become secularized.
There is no rule barring university presidents from becoming premiers, and many of them did a fine job in office. But just as many were found to be lacking in integrity, so the custom of naming university presidents as prime minister should be restrained; that would be better for the development of our schools. It is fortunate that there are many more university presidents who are concentrating all their efforts on education and have no time for politics. The position of university president is an honorable one that will add luster to the final page of an educator's biography.
Decades ago, newspapers printed university presidents' words of encouragement to graduates. Although those gentlemen may have seemed to be stuffed shirts, I certainly preferred them to today's motley group.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Hallym University.
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