[Viewpoint] University presidents must be strong

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[Viewpoint] University presidents must be strong

I hope they will excuse my insolence for revealing their ages. Suh Nam-pyo, president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, is 75, the eighth eldest among the 200 presidents of four-year universities across the nation. He will be 79 when he completes his term in July 2014, but he nonetheless retains his youthfulness in terms of enthusiasm.

The eldest university head is 83-year-old Kim Hi-soo, president of Konyang University. He wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and walks around the Daejeon-based university campus and hospital complex every day clad in a windbreaker instead of a suit. Lee Gil-ya, Kyungwon University president, and Lee Gil, Gachon University of Medicine and Science president, are 79 and are full of ideas and energy in pursuing the merger and competitiveness of the two campuses.

About 30 university presidents are over 70. Their undaunted spirit and stamina amongst the students of their grandchildren’s generation and the professors of their children’s age are worthy of admiration and awe.

As a journalist covering education, I interviewed over 40 university heads. They were all brilliant in terms of passion and education philosophy. But the best quotes came from the deans of foreign universities.

Kang Sung-Mo, chancellor of the University of California at Merced, says the issue of peer review of tenure is not controversial in the United States. The position of a university president, according to the first ethnic Korean president of a U.S. university, is a nerve-racking battlefield as a result.

Lee Si-chen, president of National Taiwan University, said no university can progress if professors are not under stress. “A university’s survival depends on professors, which is why we do not offer the security of tenure.”

University of Tokyo President Junichi Hamada takes pride in his school’s record of seven Nobel Prize laureates, adding that universities must invest in long-term research projects.

Kang’s comment on tenure has been most impressive. Half the professors in the U.S. do not have tenure.

If the tenure system, which was created in the U.S., hardly makes news there, why has it stirred so much controversy here? Kaist President Suh emerged as a radical reformer in the university community upon his return home after 52 years in the U.S. by introducing tenure reviews to get rid of underperforming professors. It made news not because of the individual, but because it involved one of the country’s most elite academic institutions.

Suh narrowly avoided being sacked by the university board following a controversial spate of student suicides. But he remains in the hot seat. He must prove his point and capabilities to the science and technology community. Global scientists and innovators are not born among uncritical bookworms. He must encourage his students to leap into the infinite world of creativity, driven by self-determination and a zeal for learning and innovation.

A university president’s role is difficult. Their leadership can determine a university’s reputation. Korean universities largely grew in number without regard for standards. Their teaching failed to extend beyond the university campus, and courses and subjects existed only to give jobs to the faculty. It is the president’s job to clean up the dead wood.

We must have many passionate, resolute and tenacious leaders at universities. They must be able to absorb criticism to keep professors on their toes. Only then will higher education evolve progressively. They must also challenge the government. Many only silently grumble over the heavy-handedness of the Lee Myung-bak administration despite his earlier promises of competition and freedom. State-funded universities complain they have no choice but to maintain the status quo, as the government sets their budget. But if they have things to say, they should say them loud and clear.

A university president embodies today’s intellectual spirit and the voice of the elite class. He or she must not be afraid of government power where education is concerned.

There is no future for the university if the president is busy entertaining professors and pursuing political or personal goals. Authority comes from open leadership that connects with students and faculty, marketing and management capabilities, and strong principles.

*The writer is an editor of social affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Yang Young-yu
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