[Viewpoint]University presidents should speakI apologize for revealing her age, but the president of Sookmyung Women’s University, Lee Kyung-sook, is 64-years-old. She has a warm smile that attracts people. She makes whoever she meets comfortable.
At a recent lunch with journalists who cover the Ministry of Education, President Lee asked people to toast by saying “gaenari” (a golden bell-flower) when she proposed a toast for “jindalrae” (azalea).
According to President Lee, jindalrae means “for our strong (jin) and sweet (dal) future (rae)!” and gaenari stands for the individual’s (gae) and the country’s (na) ideals (ri)!” She explained, “It is a slogan coined to publicize the university’s vision to nurture 10 percent of Korean youth as future leaders.” It was a little embarrassing to shout the slogan at first, but after hearing the explanation I couldn’t help but smile.
President Lee has been the head of the university for 14 years . She ran in the election for university president, where the faculty members elect the president directly, four times and won all four elections.
What is her secret?
Professors at Sookmyung Women’s University attribute her success to her “open leadership.” Ms. Lee joined with students young enough to be her granddaughter when they demonstrated break-dancing during the school festival. The students love her for this.
On the other hand, they say she is meticulous about her evaluation of professors. She emphasizes service to employees of the school, saying, “We are not the masters of the school, the students are.”
President Lee is also famous for making critical comments to the Ministry of Education. Her main point is that “The Ministry of Education should keep its hands off universities.” At the meeting of the Korean Council for University Education in July last year at Jeju Island, which brought together 200 presidents of four-year universities nationwide, president Lee pointed out that “The Ministry of Education’s enforcement of a 3-Nos policy (no allowing university’s to conduct their own entrance examinations, no “contribution admissions” and no high school ranking system) and expanded high school application records have made it harder for universities to select talented students.”
At the Korean Council for University Education meeting last month at Sookmyung Women’s University, she said, “Every time the minister of education changes, the new minister has stressed the importance of developing specialized education. But it was fruitless because they only pursued formalities.” That disheartened Minister Kim Shin-il, who was at the meeting.
There is another brave university president.
President Park Chan-mo of Pohang University of Science and Technology also speaks out without reserve. Journalists who cover the Ministry of Education heard something rare from a university president at a meeting with Mr. Park last November.
He said, “It was a pity that former Education Minister Kim Jin-pyo messed up the education policy by trying to adjust his policy inclinations to that of the Blue House instead of doing things according to his own beliefs.”
Regarding Kim Byung-joon, the former deputy prime minister of education, Mr. Park said, “I was wary of him, wondering whether he would drive our education policy to one corner as President Roh Moo-hyun did.”
He also criticized the government by saying, “No other country in the world has a government that intervenes in universities, demanding schools to do this and not to do that.”
It is unusual to hear a university president say such things at an official meeting with the press. At private gatherings, there are some people who sigh deeply and say the nation will be ruined because of the education policy. But they refrain from making comments at official gatherings.
It is because they are afraid of being penalized with the cancellation of financial subsidies from the government.
Someone once said, “Orders come from the place where money comes from.” One university president once confessed, “I feel ashamed because I could not step forward and speak out confidently.”
Under such circumstances, the president of the Korean Council for University Education, Kwon Young-gun, president of Andong National University, officially demanded on Jan 30 that the government guarantee self-regulatory rights to universities.
University presidents have agreed to form a self-regulation committe to pursue this. The idea is to officially present issues, which were raised by only a few university presidents from time to time in the past, in the name of all university presidents.
It is a little late, but it is a fortunate development nonetheless.
There are a lot of reasons why Korean universities cannot overcome the situation of being “a frog in a well.”
There are various reasons, such as government intervention which goes against the current of the times, negligence of the political community and selfishness of parents.
Another thing that cannot be overlooked is that there aren’t many persistent university presidents. University presidents are like mirrors that reflect the intellectual standards of Korean society.
If they change, the universities will change.
And if universities change, then the country can overcome difficulties and achieve prosperity.
It is time for university presidents to let their own voices be heard.
*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Young-yu