[Viewpoint] Lessons from the Kaist tragedy

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[Viewpoint] Lessons from the Kaist tragedy

I caused a traffic accident a few years ago. The car I was driving had gone into the opposite lane and crashed into the sidewalk. The paramedics who arrived at the scene later told me that their first job was to check whether I was seriously hurt.

Fortunately, that was not the case. As I was receiving treatment for minor injuries, I thought about the accident while I laid in the hospital ward. I was sleep-driving at the time.

Because I had just successfully completed a very important presentation for advertising clients after pulling a series of all nighters, I probably felt very much relieved. With my career in advertising, I am used to working all night. Over the past 20 years, I had been able to function properly with only about four hours of sleep on average.

Then, an epiphany came from a book that I read at the hospital. The book was Heinrich’s Law by Herbert William Heinrich. He was a manager of an American insurance company in 1930 and argued in his book that all major accidents are signals. He based his insight on an analysis of major accidents over decades.

His argument can be summarized into the “1:29:300 law.” According to this principle, behind one major accident, there were 29 minor accidents and 300 signs of abnormalities.

If I had been a little more sensitive, I would have realized the abnormal signs from the people around me. There were signs that my body was not right and my judgment was clouded by tension from competition.

As I followed the crisis at Kaist, I wondered what signs were being displayed, then thought about what needed to be done to mend the situation, including the possible resignation of its president and reform measures.

First, the leadership of Kaist’s president has shown hubris and arrogance.

There is nothing wrong with President Suh Nam-pyo’s goal to make Kaist better than MIT, where he worked as a department head. The problem was that there was no mechanism to collect opinions or check on the progress of implementing the goal. Of course, his high-handed attitude, the results-oriented culture and the media that encouraged Suh all worked to bring about the current crisis.

The problems remain unchanged. The government and the leaders of our society, including the major political parties, are talking about how to punish Suh and to start new reforms.

What is the new reform plan that they have in mind?

Will it simply be a plan to abolish the punitive tuition policy and adjust the English-only lectures?

It is dangerous to focus on a small fraction of the problem, while only a few people pay attention to the effects on society.

The punitive tuition policy, once implemented at MIT, was abolished 40 years ago. Instead of simply deciding that “we should not do this either,” it is important to look into why the policy was abolished.

Instead of just calling our students “too weak,” it is time to look into the social structure that has weakened them.

The yardstick of the current generation, who built up Korea from a developing country to a member of the G-20, may not be appropriate to be applied to the young generation. That is another form of hubris.

Let’s not say that endless whipping is the only path to a success. It is time to pay more attention to the aspects of reform rather than speed.

Even the strong current of a stream changes course when it meets a small obstacle. It is necessary to remove the obstacle to achieve the ambitious goal to establish a leading global school.

It is necessary to work to build a smooth path for the waters to flow into the ocean. A system to encourage the students by giving them more rewards and compliments based on their successful performances, rather than punishing the less successful students, is necessary. The reward may be small, but we must teach them to share. Only then, will the young be able to share their victory with the world, rather than trying to dominate it, when they become leaders.

Spring sunlight is warm and the blooming magnolia flowers are falling already. Some said magnolia bloom like popcorn and fall like banana peels. The goal of Kaist is an expectation to see bright young scientists bloom like flowers and surprise the world. But they are now turning ugly like banana peels, lying on the ground even before their graduation.

Who is responsible for this?

An emergency committee on Kaist reform will be formed, and expectations are high. But we must not miss the opportunity to hold a national dialogue on Korea’s university education policy.

*The writer is a CEO of UCO Marketing Group.


By Yoo Jae-ha
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