[Viewpoint]University presidents must change

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[Viewpoint]University presidents must change

To put the conclusion first, I would say that there should be more university presidents who promote reform despite the critics.

Businesses complain that university graduates are not qualified to start work as soon as they are recruited. The international competitiveness of Korean universities is falling behind gradually, and it is falling even in Asia. This is an embarrassing situation. It seems that there is nothing we can expect from education officials who are only concerned about their own position and do not care much about education ?? which is crucial for the future of our nation. This is the reason why university presidents should come forward. They should nag professors, wake university employees from laziness and promote reform that will raise the quality of students, even if they are criticized for so.

There are a total of 200 four-year universities in Korea. However, it is difficult to recall the names of university presidents who have attracted attention in the recent past. Perhaps, the reason could be either because they were busy reading the faces of faculty members as they were elected through direct election, or because they were afraid of being punished by professors at the next election, like what was done to former Korea University President Euh Yoon-dae.

What kind of a position is the president of a university? It is the symbol of the highest authority of a university, who takes care of thousands of students, professors and employees, and an intellectual of our time. The fate of a university depends on the capability of the president.

What about the honorable treatment they receive? The head of a metropolitan government is equal to the level of a vice-minister, but presidents of national universities receive minister-level treatment. Up until the 1980s, the special car registration number 1111 was given to all national university presidents throughout the country.

They also take great pride in their job. An elderly president of a university once said, “I once waited an hour to meet an official of the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. He was about the same age as my son. He gave me only five minutes and I had to explain the purpose of my visit standing, as if I were a bad student. He treated me like a criminal. He now holds an important position in the ministry.

“There is no way education can go in the right direction, when civil servants can spoil education and rise to high positions,” he added, “It really hurt my pride, so I worked desperately hard for the development of my university.”

A university president is a position like that. For the development of his or her university, a president should sometimes give up his or her pride and academic authority.

Universities of advanced countries do not elect presidents through direct election. Most university presidents keep their position for 10 years, and at Harvard, they sometimes stay on for more than 20 years. In Korea, university presidents normally change every four years. Kangwon National University elected a new president on May 8, and at Pukyong National University, where eight candidates competed, they even took a third vote on May 20, and Chonnam National University took its final vote last Wednesday. The University of Incheon is going to hold its election on Wednesday. During these elections, a situation similar to that of real politics is created.

Professor Kim Yoon-soo, who was elected as president of Chonnam National University, said, “Although university democratization has advanced as a result of the direct election system in the past 20 years, the dominance of groups with personal connections has strengthened so much that some people even call the election of a university president, the election of a ‘neighborhood leader.’”

A university president whose term of office is coming to an end soon said, “I felt disillusioned because I had to buy professors lunch and dinner to win them over and then had to assign them high-level posts.”

This is why the point made by Ian Chubb, president of the Australia National University, feels close to my heart. “If professors elect university presidents, the university society becomes divided and presidents have to study the faces of professors.

Thus, they cannot promote proper reform.” The university ranked 16th place, which was the highest of all Asian universities, in the 2007 World University Rankings of The Times of London.

The direct election system has many problems, but it seems it’s not easy to change immediately, either. If that is the case, there is no other way but for university presidents to change themselves. The first step is that they must not worry about losing popularity or being criticized. Seo Nam-pyo, president of Kaist; Oh Young-kyo, president of Dongguk University; Sohn Byung-doo, president of Sogang University; and Park Chul, president of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies; are good examples. They have strengthened the rule on professor tenure evaluation, opened professor lecture evaluations, introduced a professor incentive program, and applied the no-labor-no-pay rule steadfastly during a 215-day-long strike by university employees. They were harshly criticized by their faculty members, but became the symbols of healthy university reform.

Chancellor of UC Merced Kang Sung-mo, the first Korean to become the president of a U.S. university, said, “Tenures or lecture evaluations do not even make news in the United States.”

That is right. In Korea, we have trouble doing things that don’t even make the news in the United States. Of course, presidents of universities put forth a lot of effort. Every president I meet worries about their university and their students. However, they seem to lack 2 percent of something. Healthy criticism could be good medicine for a university.

I hope many university presidents will face criticism for their tenacity and courage to pursue reform.

*The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Yang Young-yu
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