Professors and proper politics

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Professors and proper politics

Professors are usually in high demand during election season and appear to be in their heyday in this dead-heat presidential race. The media disapproves of what they refer as “polifessors” who spend more time mingling with politicians than in their campus labs, study rooms or classrooms. Their criticism is understandable with as many as 500 professors serving now on the campaigns of the three leading candidates. I understand several journalists have been snooping around where I work to see whether I was doing my job properly since I, too, am advising a candidate.

But I don’t agree with some of the criticism that these so-called polifessors undermine professionalism in governance and the sacredness of academia by helping to draw up platforms for presidential candidates. Scholars exist to pursue truth. But their will to employ knowledge to help better society is equally valuable. Ideally, new knowledge, after gaining a consensus, is applied in governance to help make lives better.

Professors are accused of shunning lectures and research work because they are too busy following the campaign trail, but this is unthinkable. Due to strict performance reviews, professors face demotion or being fired if they fall behind. Veteran professors who are guaranteed university posts until retirement may be less pressured, but shrewd politicians won’t likely hire anyone who idles in their profession.

University professors with expertise in specialized fields have a lot to offer in policy making by adding fresh ideas and direction as there are few policy research positions that are free from government intervention. I agree with Lee Joung-woo, professor of Kyungpook National University who serves as the head of Democratic United Party presidential candidate’s economic democratization committee. He said, “Without involvement of professors, we cannot hope for reforms in Korea. Progressive scholars should be commended - not condemned - for laying down their books for awhile on worries about national affairs.”

A social science professor offering guidance in policy making should be no different than a business management professor counseling a corporation or a scientist advising on technology development.

But lines should be drawn in professors’ engagement. Professors can help produce and advise on policies, but should not attempt to execute them by turning into bureaucrats themselves. Their service should not be motivated by political ambitions to secure a senior government post or legislative seat. There are few among professors with the prowess and experience to take up ministerial or vice ministerial posts.

The government is an intricate organization comprised of elite bureaucrats who have specialized in their work for many years. But scholars whose administrative experiences do not stretch beyond the school campus and communication restricted within academia cannot be expected to run a government organization. With few connections outside their realm, they won’t be able to coordinate policies among different government offices. They also may adhere to textbook theories and fail to exercise flexibility in policy making or misunderstand governance as a chance to experiment with their theories.

The risk would be greater in the field of national security. Professors with limited administrative experience cannot wield necessary control over immense defense and public safety organizations. They cannot be relied on to make decisions that could influence the lives and safety of 50 million people simply from books and theories.

It is still questionable if they can bow their heads to the legislature and media on behalf of the president as a part of efforts to win legislative and public support for government programs.

It won’t be easy for highbrowed scholars who prize self-pride and honor to lower themselves entirely for the president they serve. I refused a senior post in government and the presidential office and instead settled for a non-permanent post under the President Roh Moo-hyun administration based on these grounds. I lacked in these qualifications. I may be generalizing my personal experience, but I believe my academic peers do not differ greatly.

Campaign participation by scholars should be considered part of public volunteer service. Their policy contribution could end up pushing society in a better and healthier direction. But if they have an ulterior motive, then it is a completely different story. If they desire to engage in policy execution and administration after their candidates win, professors should leave their academic posts immediately. If not, they must keep their ambitions and temptations at bay.

The combination of professors and politics is not entirely bad. But the taste could turn sour if greed and ambition is added to the mix.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a political science professor at Yonsei University.

by Moon Chung-in
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