[Viewpoint]A professor whose work is his lifeI could not believe it. I could not believe there is a professor who has lived in his laboratory for the past 21 years, putting forth all of his efforts toward training students and pursuing research.
Apparently, the only time he spends with his family is from Sunday morning to Monday morning. Now older than 60, he still teaches five subjects, studies every night until 1 a.m., sleeps on the couch and eats, for lunch, one of the packed meals that his wife prepares for the week when he leaves home Monday morning to save time.
People said he started to lead such an unusual life when he was 42 and still full of vigor.
But is it normal that the man, who is now over the age of 60, is still leading the same difficult life?
I once read about him in a news magazine a long time ago, and recently, after hearing his story from another professor, I became curious.
A university professor has no set working hours; he can enjoy vacation for more than four months each year, and is guaranteed employment up to the age of 65 if he passes the process of tenure evaluation.
How can a professor throw away such a comfortable and enviable lifestyle and lead a difficult life that ordinary people cannot understand?
Kwon Cheol-shin is 63 and a professor of systems management engineering at Sungkyunkwan University.
I had to meet him in person to satisfy my curiosity. I went straight to his research laboratory in Suwon.
The story was true. He was healthy and he was not a strange person.
He called his 30 square-meter research laboratory a “labotel,” coining the term from the words “laboratory” and “hotel.” It was sparsely furnished with a bookcase full of books and research papers, a writing desk, an old sofa that also serves as a bed, a small refrigerator, a cupboard, a microwave oven, a wash stand, a makeshift wardrobe, sports equipment and a small television.
I asked him about his family. His son is married and lives independently. He has a daughter studying in the United States, and his wife and mother live at his home in Seoul.
He told me that he had no regrets, although he always felt sorry for his family and could feel the disapproval of many people around him. The professor is the eldest brother of Kwon Chul-hyeon, a lawmaker from the Grand National Party.
I was curious about his motives. Professor Kwon said, “When I came back from the United States after finishing a stint as an exchange professor at George Washington University, I felt I was in the wilderness and could not see the future.”
He worried that he would not leave any academic achievements behind if he enjoyed the comfortable life of a university professor in Korea, which is unlike an academic’s life in the United States, where the competition is fierce. So, he packed up his things and moved to campus. Then he accepted students for master’s and doctorate degree programs only on condition that they live in the laboratory, like him.
What are the results? He has written a total of 158 scientific papers, a world record in his field of development engineering.
His students have received not only free tuition, but also scholarships from big businesses and have found jobs at major corporations, a recognition of their academic ability.
Jeon Jeong-cheol, a 27-year-old master’s degree candidate, said, “I study and sleep in a simple bed in the laboratory year-round. Since our professor leads by example, there is no way for us to use any tricks.”
Professor Kwon said it is “shameful” that the Korea Institute of Advanced Technology, which dropped 43 percent of professors in its recent tenure evaluation, and Seoul National University, which shed 37 percent of its professors, have become the talk of the town.
Although it was natural, he said, the professors consider it a terrible incident, complaining that “the old good days are gone.”
He added, “Professors have to be armed with thorough professionalism and a strong sense of responsibility so fierce as to be called cruel.”
By this he meant that professors should fervently devote themselves to research work and dedicate their lives to training students.
It is true that many professors enjoyed the “good old days” when there was no competition.
Most of them had been guaranteed full employment until retirement if they went through the process of working two years as full-time lecturer, four years as assistant professor and five years as associate professor.
Fortunately, things are changing. Many universities are trying to strengthen the standards of their professor evaluations and introduce an annual pay system.
However, research evaluations are mostly not above the standard of one article a year published in a registered journal of the Korea Research Foundation.
Teacher evaluations are also slipshod. It is still the “good old days,” according to the norm in the private sector.
Professor Kwon is unique; however, he cannot be the sole model of a good professor.
But with his passion, concentration and conviction he has set an example from which others can learn. The healthier the professors get through competing and discarding comforts, the more talented human resources can be produced and the stronger national competitiveness will become.
Professor Kwon reminds us, “To enjoy tomorrow, let’s buckle down today.”
*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yang Young-yu