[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Korean colleges are undemocraticThe Ministry of Education and Human Resource Develop-ment's recent proposal to turn faculty councils at national universities into the center of university governance generated little support in educational circles. The proposal and the reaction to it reveal once again the logical problem that confronts higher education in Korea: Dis-satisfaction with the status quo is high, but skepticism regarding reform is equally high. Indeed, almost everything about higher education in Korea remains controversial, ensuring that the government of Roh Moo-hyun will have to address the issue during its tenure.
Previous efforts at reform have not succeeded as promised. Students, parents, and teachers remain upset about university admission procedures, professors and university administrators remain distrustful of government policies, and society as a whole remains worried that students are not learning enough to meet the needs of a competitive world economic environment.
The issue of faculty councils focuses attention on an important but frequently overlooked aspect of higher education: governance. This is particularly interesting because it fits with the incoming administration's strong interest in institutional reform. On issue after issue, President-elect Roh and his transition team have focused on reforming institutions to serve the needs of a newly democratized society.
Regarding higher education, two basic questions about governance come to mind: how should universities make decisions and how should they relate to society? Answering these questions will help frame the issue of faculty councils more clearly.
In a democratic society, universities must make decisions democratically as an example to students as well as to ensure that they are accountable to society. Democracy, however, takes many forms. It can be direct, as in town meetings where all members of the community discuss matters openly before making a decision. Alternatively, members of the community choose people to represent them in a larger governing body.
If a university views itself as an open academic community, then a system that allows all its members to participate in decision-making is best. If a university views itself as an institution within society, as is common with public institutions, then a system that supports strong leadership is best.
One recurring problem with university governance in Korea is the selection of a president. Eight national universities are now involved in disputes over their presidencies. Since professors began directly electing the president in the 1990s, many other universities have also found choosing a president controversial. Many private universities have abandoned direct elections in favor having the board of directors choose a president from among a list of nominees from professors.
These problems indicate that the presidents of national and private universities have too much power. If power were distributed within the university, such factional fighting over the presidency would not happen. Reducing the power of the president would also help reduce corruption in the university, particularly in the recruitment of new professors.
A recent study by Seoul National University Professor Moon Yong-rin for the Ministry of Education and Human Resources found that Korean universities were surprisingly undemocratic compared with universities in the United States and Europe. When asked about participation in the management of the university, 66 percent of professors and full-time staff in the 14 Korean universities surveyed said that they had not participated in management of the university. By contrast, 85 percent of professors and full-time staff in the 30 foreign universities surveyed said that they participated in management. When asked if the university considered their views, 76 percent of students in Korea said no, but 52 percent of students in the foreign universities said yes.
A university in which more than half of the professors, full-time staff, and students are not involved in management cannot function as an academic community or relate to a democratic society effectively. If it cannot do these things, then its ability to contribute to society is in doubt.
The recent presidential election marked a sharp break with the hierarchical Confucian ethic that has pervaded public life in Korea. With great change afoot, the controversy over faculty councils at national universities should be the beginning of a more serious discussion on how to democratize the management of all universities. Faculty councils may give professors more power, but they leave the question of full-time staff and students unresolved. Thinking of the university as an academic community responsible to society instead of an authoritarian diploma mill responsible for society will help resolve it.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser