[OUTLOOK]Academic lessons for us all

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[OUTLOOK]Academic lessons for us all

There may be almost no one, even if they are not experts in the science and technology area, who does not know the name of Hwang Woo-suk, a professor of veterinary medicine at Seoul National University. It is also well known that the thesis of Jang Ho-hee, a doctoral student at Gyeongsang National University, is published in Cell, a world famous science magazine. I’d like to show respect, albeit belatedly, to the two people and at the same time think about the lessons their achievements teach us.
Mr. Hwang graduated from Daejon High School with honor, but despite receiving advice to enter medical college, he applied for the department of veterinary medicine in the agricultural college at Seoul National University. He listed veterinary medicine as his first, second and third choices on his admissions application.
Both then and now, from the perspective of academic recognition, agricultural colleges and departments of veterinary medicine have not been popular. But based on his interest and ambition, he chose an “unpopular” department, and finally came to stand out as a world-class scientist who represents Korea.
Given the reality that high school graduates chose colleges and departments according to academic ranking regardless of their aptitude, Mr. Hwang’s choice makes us reflect on many things.
Mr. Hwang has produced world-class achievements in a situation where both government support and societal interest were meager. At present, he receives 60 million won ($50,000) in annual salary, and researchers on his team receive only 1 million won ($860) in monthly pay. Moreover, they have to visit slaughterhouses in Majang-dong and Garak-dong, Seoul, early in the morning because they don’t have a ranch dedicated to experiments. A private association was recently organized to support Mr. Hwang, but I wonder what the government will do for his research in the future.
The government, which sets aside more than 200 billion won per year in an academic research fund, may think that it should distribute the budget equally among colleges or researchers. In Mr. Hwang’s research field, our country is currently taking the lead, but other countries have already begun to catch up. I hope the government will keep in mind that the development of science and technology is, by nature, achieved “non-democratically” but its outcomes contribute to the country and the whole people.
Meanwhile, Jang Ho-hee did not graduate from “prestigious” colleges in Seoul, nor does she have any experience of studying abroad. Among professors and students in Seoul, there may be many who do not know in what city Gyeongsang National University is located. But Ms. Jang did not give up learning and studying just because she has a weak academic background, nor did her professor in charge, a graduate of Seoul National University, underestimated her potential just because she graduated from a local university.
Ms. Jang’s achievement demonstrates that basing the final judgment of one’s ability on academic performance in high school is a grave mistake and that one can break the barrier of the Establishment and grow if he or she has determination and effort and the systematic guidance and support of others. Her achievement makes us reflect again on our reality where a scholastic aptitude test determines the remaining life of high school students and no opportunities are provided for “losers” to try again.
We should also remember that behind her result is the vision and leadership of Cho Moo-je, the president of Gyeongsang National University, who has made the school an essential stronghold of biotechnological research. He selected areas to concentrate on and foster as a local university, appointed excellent professors based not on academic ties but on abilities, and drew up good programs to get support from the government. His tenacious effort is a model that presidents of universities nationwide should emulate.
Through thorough restructuring and realignment, colleges across the country should now be born again as professional and streamlined first-class ones equipped with competitiveness. The competition system, including Seoul National University, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, Pohang University of Science and Technology, and Gyeongsang National University, which is established in the field of biotechnology, should be implemented in other fields of study. Under this competition system the evil practices of an academic clique will be reduced and the bright future of our colleges will be guaranteed. Of course, the government should encourage and support universities to carry out reform in this direction.
In sum, the triumphant achievements of Hwang Woo-suk and Jang Ho-hee give a lot of lessons that all of us should listen to, regarding the solution to the evils of academic sectarianism, the government’s ways of supporting academic research, and the right direction for the reform of universities beyond the border of fields of study.

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

by Cho Kook
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