[Viewpoint] Professors not politicians

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[Viewpoint] Professors not politicians

The Asahi Shimbun on May 5 highlighted the exodus of professors from the University of Tokyo, examining the phenomenon and reason for the trail of professors leaving teaching jobs from the most prestigious university in Japan.

Seoul National University should have read the article with deep interest because it has been modeling its reform drive, such as privatization and establishment of law schools, after its Japanese counterpart. The elite Korean university also has seen a handful of resignations from its faculty members.

The University of Tokyo offers the most generous package to academic staff among seven state-funded universities in Japan. Professors are on average paid 11.657 million yen ($137,534), equivalent to 160 million won, about 10 percent more than their counterparts at rivals Kyoto University and Tohoku University get. The university ran on an annual budget of around three trillion won in 2010, sharply higher than other national universities. Why would professors want to abandon such benefits?

Those choosing to leave say it is because the university no longer possesses academic nobility and integrity. One professor was quoted by the paper as saying that academic pursuit and research require teachers have time to think. The university in the past respected this, but now it whips professors for results.

Privatization may have been one reason. As a private school, it has to emphasize profits. Professors are prized for drawing outside investment more than their lectures or research work. As a result they pursue work that can generate financial gain and immediate results instead of research that demands energy and time. Professors spend more time in meetings and doing office work than in laboratories.

Hisaki Matsuura, the 2000 winner of Japanese literary award the Akutagawa Prize, who left the university in March, agreed. “Professors should be granted enough time and space to strike up intelligent and personal communication with students in the classroom. Without such a setting, the university won’t be able to stop professors from leaving.”

Seoul National University may share similar prestige as the top Japanese school, but can hardly match the University of Tokyo in faculty benefits. The university has an annual budget of 1.5 trillion won, which is just half of its Tokyo counterpart.

Permanent professors receive an annual salary of 85 million won on average, which is half of that of those at University of Tokyo. The president of Seoul National University gets 110 million won a year, just one third of what the presidents of other elite national universities like Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology get.

The university has become privatized under such a poor environment. The president is required to have capabilities matching that of a corporate chief executive. He or she may have to team up with faculty members to draw money from the outside to run the university. Demand and popularity may become a priority in recruiting professors instead of lecturing and research capabilities. Money-making professors and faculty would be valued over basic studies. The academic campus may now be overrun by market principle and politicking.

It may be natural for celebrity-status professors to take an interest in politics. Many are lured into joining politics during the election season and migration will likely take place ahead of the presidential election in December.

Parties are already courting popular and renowned names in the engineering and technology fields due to the stardom of Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of SNU’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, who still remains a frontrunner among potential presidential candidates, even though he hasn’t expressed any interest in mainstream politics. “We suddenly have so many would-be Ahn Cheol-soos at SNU,” one department dean said, expressing concern that the campus could turn into a politician incubator.

The intelligentsia has never been able to wave off the temptation of power. They cry out for academic freedom, but in reality they live under the influence of money and power. We envy the Japanese professors’ integrity for leaving the prestigious university to pursue their academic passion and career.

Many renowned professors at SNU, however, are opting for politics over their academic career. The phenomenon is even spreading to research labs in the engineering department. One journalist said SNU may soon be without any reputable professors. I hope he is proven wrong.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily

*The writer is a political science professor at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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