[REPORTER'S DIARY]Scholarship and the Blue HouseThe Center for Korean Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, organized a conference, "The Future of Korean Studies in the United States," last spring. Lee Sang-joo, then the president of the Academy of Korean Studies, attended the conference and played a leading role, in part due to his outgoing personality.
Scholars who attended the conference and a party afterward were impressed at his ability to induce a good atmosphere. Many Koreans there had no hesitation in saying that his impressive career to that point was based on his leadership abilities, despite jealousy-induced rumors of good connections or just good luck.
Bolstering that evaluation, Mr. Lee renovated the atmosphere of the Academy of Korean Studies in eight months. Before he assumed the presidency, the institute was a hotbed of revolt by the researchers against the former president's political maneuvering.
Under those depressing circumstance, Mr. Lee was appointed to head the institute based on recommendations by the research staff for the first time in the history of the academy. Soon he created an atmosphere in which all members of the institute were encouraged to look in new directions.
To advance the academy's interests, he did not stand on ceremony, but cultivated even low-ranking government officials who could be helpful. His efforts touched all the members of the academy, including the professors.
President Kim Dae-jung now has named Mr. Lee as Blue House Chief of Staff. No one seems to know just what political calculus the president had in mind in that appointment of a "pure" academic to one of the "big three" political posts in Korea.
But the presidency of the 30-year-old academy is now experiencing an identity crisis; the Blue House appointment could be seen as supporting the misperception that the presidency of the academy is nothing more than a stepping-stone to enter the political arena. Or, conversely, it could come to be seen as a "rest home" job for retired politicians and government officials.
Despite all his efforts to develop the academy, Mr. Lee ended up failing to contribute toward resolving the identity crisis of the institute; he stepped down from the job only after eight months.
From a scholar's point of view, therefore, the appointment could be seen almost as a step down and even as a blow to the independence and prestige of the academy.
The academy seems to be in shock because of the sudden, unexpected personnel change. Of course, some welcome the recent appointment, believing that Mr. Lee's promotion will help it in its ability to attract necessary funding. Nonetheless, there is widespread irritation at the revolving-door presidency.
Most of the academy members worry that another political figure could be named to head the academy, where a consistent long-term plan is vital for its development, and ruin the progress made so far.
Academia hopes that the Academy of Korean Studies will, as its name promises, preserve our culture and spirit and maintain both its own independence and that of the scholarly community in general.
The writer is a staff writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Chang-ho