Washed up iron rice bowlsThe winds of change blowing through the Korean academic community are expected to grow stronger. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology decided not to renew the contracts of six professors whose research performance fell below expectations. The move followed the school’s decision last year not to give tenure to 15 applicants.
Sungkyunkwan University also did not renew contracts for three professors. Hanyang University gave an ultimatum to eight professors who failed to reach an accepted level of performance. Those academics will be let go if they do not prove themselves over the next three years. Seoul National University said it will reinforce its evaluation standards for professors seeking tenure, an unprecedented measure designed to root out lackluster performers.
Until now, academia has been free from competition. Because the evaluation for contract renewal and tenure was a formality, many academics felt comfortable under a system of guaranteed tenure. That is why a professor’s position is considered an “iron rice bowl” an Asian expression for an untouchable job.
It is no wonder there is no competition and that professors hardly produce any research of note.
Harvard Professor Harry Lewis, who visited Korea at the invitation of Handong Global University, said yesterday that more than half of his university’s professors fail to get tenure. It is unimaginable in a U.S. university that tenure is automatically guaranteed just because a professor serves the school for a certain number of years.
The key to a university’s competitive power is its faculty. A professor who does not work hard enough and achieve results will have to leave the school. To this end, the reforms are promising. However, preconditions for successful reform are needed.
First, the evaluation standard to renew a contract with a professor must be fair.
In addition, the system should allow professors who fail to renew their contracts to be hired by other schools. Branding them as incompetent professors is not fair.
Universities should not just blame academics. Professors need an environment in which they can thrive.
Universities that are unable to do so should think about shutting down, rather than thinking about getting new professors. Universities should be evaluated as well as part of a grand scheme to improve the quality of higher education in Korea.