After suicides at Kaist, a calmer mood prevails

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After suicides at Kaist, a calmer mood prevails


DAEJEON - While Kaist’s board of trustees met in Seoul on Friday to discuss reforming school polices, the campus in Daejeon, dotted with colorful cherry blossoms, was quiet and peaceful - no demonstrations, no student rallies and no big debate over whether the university’s president, Suh Nam-pyo, should step down.

Everything, in fact, seemed calm, despite the recent outcry over the suicides of four students and one professor.

“Until Tuesday, the campus was full of discussion about the suicide crisis, but now everything seems to have settled down,” a 25-year-old senior said on the condition of anonymity.

Kyung Chong-min, head of the faculty association, said the atmosphere had cooled off considerably, especially since an emergency committee was formed to help lead the university through the crisis.

The committee consists of five professors appointed by Suh and five professors appointed by the faculty association. Kyung said the committee will meet for three month and “make new policies for the university.”

Tired of the media attention, most of the students interviewed Friday by the Korea JoongAng Daily did not want their names used when they talked about the recent suicides and Suh’s controversial policies, seen by some as playing a role in the deaths.

“Unlike media reports that blame the students’ deaths on Suh’s policy, most students think the students had their own reasons to commit suicide,” said a 21-year-old student reporter of The Kaist Times. “But their suicides brought up many issues about the university - the punitive scholarship, lectures conducted in English and communication between the faculty and the president.”

“But the one thing we all agree on is that students don’t have enough time to talk about their problems with each other under the competition-oriented policies,” the student said.

A 21-year-old sophomore who was friends with one of the students who died said, “I guess he died because of his own personal reasons, not because of Suh’s policies. But I think it is true that under Suh’s competition-encouraging policies, most students are unable to take care of each other, which I find regrettable.”

Byun Kyu-hong, a 23-year-old student leader, said that while students overall seem to be satisfied with their Kaist education, they are competing against each other not to be labeled as an “abnormal” students.

About 70 percent of Kaist students today receive full scholarships, according to the university.

“Under the previous full-scholarship policy, students could develop their creativity from participating in extracurricular activities, not only from lectures. And many graduated with low GPAs, but they still contributed brilliant ideas to society,” Byun said. “But now, most students concentrate on getting better grades for fear of being labeled lazy and abnormal.”

“Money is also a matter of concern to students,” he said. “A friend of mine has about 15 million won [$13,761] of debt right now.”

The Kaist Times reporter said, “Kaist students are proud, and they scold themselves if they are labeled as lazy students who fail to get a full scholarship. But very few students on this campus are actually lazy.”

Kwak Young-chool, 23-year-old student who is on the student council, said it would be difficult to change Kaist to be more like elite U.S. universities because of the different education systems in the two countries.

“The education systems, from elementary to high schools, in Korea and in the United States are completely different,” Kwak said.

“All students at Kaist succeeded in getting through Korea’s tough, competitive education system during their childhoods, and they got used to the competition. They don’t need policies that add more competition in college since they are proud and study for themselves,” Kwak said.

In an effort to prevent further suicides and make school policies more democratic, Kwak said the student council will ask students to be more involved in choosing Kaist’s next president.

“Three members of the student council will sit on the emergency committee, and we will demand a voice in selecting the next president of the university,” Kwak said.

Staff members at Kaist’s counseling center refused to comment on the recent controversy. All student dormitories were also restricted to outsiders.

A 21-year-old student who visited the counseling center for career advice said he was satisfied with the situation on campus.

He also said that he didn’t oppose Suh’s efforts to make the university more competitive.

“But I guess it would be good if the competition is aimed at awarding, not scolding and pushing,” the student said.

Although posters could be seen around the campus on Friday criticizing Suh’s policies, they were not drawing any notice from passersby.

The student council plans to focus on getting the emergency committee to listen to what students want.

“We believe communication is the most important thing in devising a school policy,” said Kyung, head of the faculty.

“The evaluation system for students and professors will also have to be improved, not based on grade point averages or theses, but based on their personalities and creativity in other areas,” Kyung added.

Since January, four students and one professor have killed themselves, drawing public alarm. After harsh criticism of his competition-oriented policies, Suh formed the emergency committee to make reforms to school policy. Meanwhile, the university’s board met on Friday but did not call for Suh’s resignation.

Amid the criticism over the current scholarship policy, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea has launched an investigation into the policy to determine whether the university violated the human rights of students on campus.

The commission will issue a recommendation to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology if the probe finds changes are necessary.

By Kim Hee-jin []
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