Turf battle brewing at SNU

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Turf battle brewing at SNU

Seoul National University and the Finance Ministry are digging in for a battle over who should have the rights to land now held by Korea’s top school if and when it is privatized.

The national university has been run as an arm of the Education Ministry since it was established in 1946, and as a government institution it was given the right to use huge tracts of land - 0.2 percent of Korea’s total area, and around 33 percent of Seoul city.

But the close tie that gave SNU that right has also been a source of controversy, with SNU claiming that its failure to rank higher than 47th internationally has been due to government meddling in academic affairs.

SNU wants to shake off that control, and a bill to incorporate the school into a nonprofit public organization passed through a cabinet meeting last December and is awaiting approval from the National Assembly.

If the bill is enacted, the national university would relaunch as a public institution with the right to conduct its own financial and personnel affairs, including faculty selection, without government interference, although it would continue to receive state funds and the president would still have the authority to name the school head.

The prospect of a break from the government has opened up a turf war over the land on which the school stands. SNU argues that even if the school is incorporated as a nonprofit, it will continue to be a public institution. The Finance Ministry says that the land belongs to Korea, and if the school is no longer part of the government, it wants the option of using at least part of the area for public purposes. The two sides said Tuesday that they are in the preliminary stages of negotiations to resolve the question.

SNU holds around 192.5 million square meters (47,567 acres) nationwide, encompassing areas in and around the Jiri and Baegun mountains, Taehwa Mountain in Gwangju and an arboretum near Gwanak Mountain, in addition to its main Gwanak campus. Its total holdings are valued at close to 1.94 trillion won ($1.7 billion).

“If SNU breaks off from the ministry as a separate entity, we can’t allow the school to own all the land it has now, as it’s national property,” said Kim Jin-sun, a manager at the Finance Ministry’s public properties division.

He said the Finance Ministry has asked the Education Ministry to determine who should be able to use the land SNU currently holds, and whether the school needs the entire area to carry out its educational programs.

But Chu Cheong-nam, SNU’s planning director, countered, “For decades, the Finance Ministry has itself admitted that this land is needed for SNU’s research and education and trusted the school to manage it. If the ministry forces us to return the land, it denies all the accomplishments the school and the ministry have achieved up to now.”

By Park Sung-woo, Cho Jae-un [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]
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