[VIEWPOINT]Foreign scholars merit equal status

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[VIEWPOINT]Foreign scholars merit equal status

The foreign professor -- colleague or hired hand?

I cannot, in good conscience, pass up the opportunity to respond to Noh Jae-hyun's "Scholars Come, Scholars Go" (JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, May 27), although the central point of his article escapes me.

Is it that Korea needs foreign professors in order to soak up Western ways, not because their culture is inferior -- far from it -- or has fallen behind? Is 19th century Japan really an appropriate model for modern Korea? Is the nationalistic mindset of that distant period, which led to Korea's annexation and the Pacific War, something for a 21st century globalizing Korea to emulate? Mr. Noh approvingly quotes Nagaoka: "After I die, I will go to hell and watch through a telescope my offspring beating the white man." Translation: "Beat the bastards at their own game."

My reading of what Mr. Noh advocates is that Korea should follow the worst aspects of Western civilization, racism and national superiority. Apparently, some Koreans, like the Japanese before them, cannot seem to shake off an intensely nationalistic bias in their thinking, attitude and behavior. The World Cup notwithstanding, anti-foreign sentiment still simmers under the surface, often due to an inadequate grounding in history.

Regarding foreign professors, Mr. Noh is way off the mark in his head count. No more than a small fraction of the 1,200 foreign professors he cites actually reside in Korea. Only one holds a tenured position at a Korean university, an Australian professor of Architecture at Seoul National.

What of the rest? There are three kinds of "foreign professors" in Korea. By far, the bulk are English teachers at colleges and universities, mostly instructors or lecturers in English departments. For the most part, faculty positions in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences remain closed to non-Koreans. A second category are visiting professors, often retired government officials such as am-bassadors, distinguished scholars or researchers, who are in Korea for no more than a year or two. How many of the new hires fall into this category is unclear.

By contrast, permanent foreign professors number only a handful compared to the legions of Korean professors at foreign universities, but they do most of the heavy lifting in terms of course loads, devoting themselves almost exclusively to teaching. Nevertheless, they tend to be treated as hired hands, without academic standing, and lacking the possibility of career advancement or tenure. They must submit to yearly contracts (compensated at a rate only 60 percent of their Korean peers) while walled off from the permanent Korean faculty who benefit from travel, research funding, sabbaticals, etc. Moreover, when hundreds of Korean scholars enjoy such perks at American and other foreign universities, something is obviously amiss.

The hiring of foreign professors at Korean colleges and universities is a good thing. The question is what will become of them? Will the Ministry of Education insure a level playing field with their Korean colleagues in hiring, career advancement, salary and tenure?

There is good reason why more than 40,000 Koreans annually pursue college and graduate education in the U.S. and elsewhere: the inadequacy of Korean higher education. The Organi-zation of Economic Cooperation and Development has evaluated Korean higher education as dismal, far below what is necessary if Korea is to become the regional business hub it aspires to be. Rotating foreign professors will hardly solve the problem that lies at the heart of Korean culture and manifests itself in most Korean organizations, where foreigners generally remain apart from decison-making.

According to the Samsung Group's chairman, Lee Kun-hee, to succeed globally, Korea must forgo the thought that Korea and being Korean is superior, and foreign specialists must be treated with respect. If Korean companies follow this standard, Korea's institutions of higher learning cannot afford to do less.

For Korea's institutions of higher learning to become world class in the next decade or two, much will depend on whether Korea makes effective use of its foreign professors and gives them a meaningful stake in Korean higher education.


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The writer is a foreign professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by John B. Kotch

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