[Viewpoint] Is it good for Kaist?Jared Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, had a word of advice for the president and students of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology at their commencement ceremony. Cohon, who has headed the Pittsburgh research-oriented university since 1997, advised his Kaist counterpart to be more aggressive in communicating with school members in pursuing reforms.
Suh Nam-pyo, who has been the president of the elite Daejeon-based science and engineering university since 2006, was asked to step down twice by the university’s council of professors. The fact that Cohon had no more to say to Suh than urge him to talk more to his peers underscores the disastrous state of relations between the president and professors of Kaist.
Upon taking the helm at Kaist, Suh introduced revolutionary reforms. He made it more difficult for lecturers to earn tenure and drew immense corporate donations. His charismatic leadership brought about sweeping changes to the university.
But his reform drive aimed at staff and students came under fire after four students committed suicide last year. Professors as well as board members let the onus fall on the strong-willed president.
The problem is not just that the president and professors are not on speaking terms, but they speak an entirely different language from one another. Suh regards the communication demanded by professors as a verbal attack to kick him out as well as a strategy to strengthen the rights and interests of professors.
The university’s council of professors, which includes most of the permanent lecturing staff, says that the president defines communication by requiring the council to keep quiet and listen entirely to what he says. Because of such distrust and estrangement, their method of communication is equally odd. The president and his opposing professor group refuse to face one another. They release statements through their agents via e-mail or letters.
On Feb. 24, the council of professors sent a letter to Suh with suspicion that the president stole a professor’s patent. The office of the president responded to the council’s allegations and obtained evidence that the council was involved in the news reports of the accusations.
The office demanded that the council’s leadership explain and even taped the phone conversation. Their communication has led to mutual mistrust and hatred.
In his book “Getting More,” Stuart Diamond, who has lectured on the process of negotiation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said that the major problem with negotiations today is that parties are not flexible enough. “It is about how to get more, not about getting everything,” Diamond writes.
To get more from a negotiation, one must value the other party’s point of view and embrace differences. “To persuade them, you have to make the negotiations first about them, not about you,” says Diamond.
Without efforts to be empathetic and understand your opponent’s viewpoint, there cannot be any progress in negotiations.
The Kaist leadership cannot be negotiated because the two opposing sides want to eliminate each other. Without starting over, there is no hope in such a relationship. An organization without mutual trust or any communication channels has to pay a dear price. The price could be at the cost of students, including poorer research and education quality. We cannot let a school running on public taxes go to waste.
Suh, who has been schooled in the United States, is more comfortable with English than he is with Korean. Whenever he faced challenges and opposition, he asks in English, “Is it good for Kaist?”
He reiterated that no matter how painful it is right now, they should endure to make decisions that are ultimately good for Kaist. He should now pose the same question to himself. And he will have to come up with an answer by the next board meeting in March.
by Kang Hong-jun
* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.