[Viewpoint] Free from the fetters of bureaucracy

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[Viewpoint] Free from the fetters of bureaucracy

It is no fun exposing the weaknesses of universities at a time when they are courting competent applicants who have recently finished their college entrance exams. It is particularly embarrassing that the focus is on Seoul National University, a top elite school. Deans of SNU last week visited the National Assembly to draw attention to a bill proposing to privatize SNU that has been tossed aside for more than a year. But the delegation was coolly received by a member of the parliament’s subcommittee on education affairs, who sneered at the deans for acting like a “bunch of lobbyists.”

The school deans, dumbfounded by the contemptuous treatment, then had to witness - along with hundreds of elementary school children visiting the National Assembly - a group of lawmakers engaged in fist fights and name-calling over allegations of fishy political donations and the involvement of a presidential aide in illegal spy activities on civilians. They turned away with heavy hearts, wondering when academia will finally be divorced from political plots and bureaucratic control.

Scholars at SNU have been contaminated with bureaucracy. As soon as they set foot on campus, students join the factory lines of “mechanical intelligence production” governed by a rigidly-controlled bureaucratic organization. The “glowing elite” of SNU is bleakly marred by government interference in admissions and the hiring of lecturing staff, courses and research.

It is a wonder the school still managed to get to the top 50 in one world ranking of universities. Since the university’s founding in 1946, the Education Ministry has been the control tower overseeing the school’s operations and the school’s president is the administrator of various state orders. The university has been dancing to the tune of various erratic policies and demands from the government and ministers for the last 65 years. The poison injected by bureaucratic control has been lethal. Many professors educated in America return to their alma mater only to pack and leave in disappointment and disgust, fed up by the rigid and complicated procedural formalities. The budget for student guidance is appropriated per head like a poll tax and the school can hardly think of inviting a distinguished guest speaker because of the government-imposed rule on austerity and efficacy.

But what hurts the lecturers most is today’s students. The university student population is engrossed not with the country or the society, but solely with their own well-being. This is a generation blessed with abundance, which should breed richer dreams. But these young people have learned too soon and hastily that liberal arts and history philosophy provide little help in their pursuit for fame and wealth. Instead they hunt for opportunities and loopholes for high-paying careers.

In an academic system chocked by bureaucratic restraint, a university president has limited power. He or she should be happy to sit in the seat for a while. Heads of state universities spend half of their professional time on administering meetings and paperwork on regulatory affairs, 20 percent on attending events and entertaining guests and 10 percent on raising funds for research projects and operation.

The president then appropriates the remaining 10 percent of his time and energy to student education and programs, plans for the university’s future and policy. The position - the person in charge of producing intellectual talent and the pinnacle of academia- has been belittled by meager budgets and constant nagging by bureaucrats.

SNU runs on an equal portion of government funds, tuition and research funds won by professors. Still, bureaucrats act as if they own the board, condemning the university for a lack of progress in spite of all the funding. They are not aware that if they had just let the university be, it could have been different.

The deans have gone to the National Assembly with the hope that the privatization proposal, which was approved by SNU’s executive council in a 37-6 vote in September 2009, and to which the government has already agreed - will see the light. Only when they are free from the fetters of bureaucracy can the professors finally return to students with confidence. Otherwise the legacy of irresponsible and negligent teaching and mass-production of a shallow-minded opportunistic elite class will continue.

*The writer is professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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