[Viewpoint] Politics and academia bad bedfellows

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[Viewpoint] Politics and academia bad bedfellows

The behavior of Ahn Cheol-soo has generated much controversy because of Ahn’s decision to dip his feet into the two worlds of politics and academia. The antivirus software mogul, who serves as a professor at the state-run Seoul National University, was expected to throw his hat in the ring for the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election but ended up lending his support to eventual winner Park Won-soon, an independent candidate. This was clearly a political activity, which reignited debate about the legitimacy of so-called “polifessors” (a portmanteau word of politician and professor) that first erupted during the 2008 legislative elections. At the time, 100 professors applied to be nominated.

While professors at state-run schools should certainly be encouraged to contribute to the social good, they are first and foremost public servants who need to be extra-sensitive to their duties, namely, to educate and conduct research.

Korea has no law barring professors from entering the political sphere, and if they can use their academic knowledge and broad perspective to better serve the public in this way, then it can a good way to further their career. But if their political activities interfere with their academic duties, it is the student body that suffers at their expense.

Ahn was recruited by Seoul National University President Oh Yeon-cheon in June and his tenure at the elite school was guaranteed more or less by its desire to develop convergence technology as a new part of the curriculum. Although Ahn did not come from a particularly strong academic background, and neither had he made any significant achievements in terms of research, the treatment afforded to him was extraordinary. And even though he stepped down as the head of SNU’s Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology shortly after last month’s by-elections, citing personal reasons, he has retained his post as the dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology as well as his faculty position.

In fact, much of his popularity probably stems from having held the SNU posts. This means Ahn has profited from a job that does not require him to teach any classes, even though he gives lectures at other venues or occasions such as the “Youth Concert.” This suggests a violation of the law governing education civil servants which states that someone in Ahn’s position is required to teach at least nine hours weekly. The university reduced the requirement in his case by six hours because he is serving as a dean, and it allowed him to fulfill his obligation by giving advice to students for the obligatory three hours. But students have expressed their dissatisfaction with this situation and Ahn owes them something of a debt.

Ahn’s case prompted an investigation into other professors who have migrated over to become cabinet ministers and politicians, and the outcome was shocking. Minister of Education, Science and Technology Lee Ju-ho was shown to be a labor economics professor at the Korea Development Institute, as he did not resign from the post while serving as a lawmaker - among other roles such as senior secretary at the Blue House and minister at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology - over the past seven years.

Minister of Strategy and Finance Bahk Jae-wan has also been on a leave of absence for eight years from his job as a professor Sungkyunkwan University. On the school’s Web site, his office is still marked as room 510 at the main faculty building, and his main research areas are listed as fiscal administration and governance innovation.

Most professors-turned-lawmakers are also on extended sabbaticals from their respective schools, which cooperate by granting them leave based on the rationale that such figures add to their prestige.

But who teaches in their absence? As universities cannot hire replacements due to the rules governing faculty quotas, they find by-the-hour instructors to fill the gap, meaning that students suffer from a second-rate education while talented doctoral graduates struggle to find academic placements.

Another complaint leveled at these polifessors is how they often selfishly decide to return to the academic world when their political activities dry up, even though they harbor no intentions of ever publishing a research paper.

Perhaps the U.S. system can here serve as a guide. This compels faculty members to go through the rehiring process if they have been away for an extended period. If professors want to double as politicians, they must accept the fact that the key to the faculty room cannot remain in their possession without first earning the right to own it.

As a long list of polifessors are expected next year, something must be done to make sure students are not continually being cheated.

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

by Yang Young- yu

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