[VIEWPOINT]A noble experiment at KAIST

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[VIEWPOINT]A noble experiment at KAIST

At the end of May, one of the best science and engineering education and research institutes of the country, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, announced that its board of directors would appoint a Nobel prize winner in physics and a professor of Stanford University, Robert Laughlin, as the 12th president of the institute.
In a reality where most universities still appoint presidents from insiders at the school, the decision was a refreshing shock, and the media were favorable about the idea, saying that they expected a leap for Korean science and technology just as when Guus Hiddink led the Korean soccer team into the semifinals of the World Cup.
It is true that the closed culture and notion of keeping things within the school have obstructed Korean universities from becoming world-class universities, and so introducing a foreigner as the president of a school could be a turning point to overcoming those obstructions.
Nevertheless, there are some engineers who voice worries along with their generally favorable expectations.
The opinions of concern can be grouped into two large issues. The first is that just because a person is a Nobel prize winner, it does not automatically qualify him to be the president of a university. Just as Mr. Hiddink’s life as a soccer player was not brilliant, the qualities of a star player and an excellent leader do not always match. That is why famous universities abroad that have plenty of stars like Nobel prize winners make a presidential search committee and review the qualities and visions of candidates for months or even years before they make a decision.
Appointing the new president of the institute took just over a month; the board was sticking to a tight schedule, and so the questionable thing is whether or not this period of time was enough to make serious efforts to find the best candidates and thoroughly review each one.
The second thing questioned was whether the conditions of a Korean university are good and ready enough to allow a foreign president to address all of his ambitions. There is no doubt that no matter how capable or talented a man is, it is hard to succeed if the conditions are not good enough to support him.
Korean universities are still held down by a lot of interference from the government, and science and engineering departments in particular get much less investment than leading foreign universities, making it hard to maintain competitiveness. Luckily the institute is under the Ministry of Science and Technology, unlike other universities that are under the Ministry of Education, so the conditions at the institute are comparatively better. But it is still worrisome whether KAIST will be able to support the desires of the new president.
Despite such worries, I still believe that this experiment is worth pursuing. If we want to make it through the global competition of knowledge-based societies in the 21st century, the time has come for our universities to pursue leaps in quality instead of increases in quantity. In addition, painful cuts and changes in the faculty and staff members is a necessary part of standing up to other universities of the world.
It is hard for existing members of the boards to make decisions on who should leave, so having an outsider with an international eye come in to make objective decisions is definitely worth considering. Also, most academics would probably agree that the institute is one of the most appropriate educational institutes to carry out such an experiment.
Nevertheless, one thing to keep in mind is that this experiment must be successful. The selection of the new president was made mostly by the Ministry of Science and Technology, neglecting the opinions of members of the institute. Therefore, the government is burdened with the responsibility of making this experiment work.
Assuming that the appointment of a foreign president is just the beginning, the government will have to continually meet the demands of the president so that he will be able to put all or most of his plans into operation. The institute has always played the role of a leading science and engineering university since it was founded in 1971. The school is managed strictly and has a fair system of personnel management.
It is also an institute that carries out reform. When the board sought its last president, the faculty members voluntarily suggested inviting a candidate from outside the school. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen that the experiment fails due to the lack of preparations or will of the government, and then the responsibility is shifted to the members of the institute, because it would be disastrous for both the honor of the institute and the development of Korea’s universities.

* The writer is a professor of physics at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Seh-jung
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