The rise of SungkyunkwanLast March, Sungkyunkwan University Dean of Admissions Kim Yun-bae spoke at a college fair.
“Please take out a 1,000 won bill from your wallet,” he said. “Do you see Lee Hwang? He was a professor at Sungkyunkwan. Take out a 5,000 won bill and you will see Lee Yi. He was a scholarship student at Sungkyunkwan. Look at the 10,000 won bill and you’ll find King Sejong, who was the chairman of the board. Lastly, you will find the portrait of the only female on Korean currency on the 50,000 won bill. She was the parent of a Sungkyunkwan student. If your children go to Sungkyunkwan, you may find your face on the money someday.”
Kim said he’d picked up the quip from the students, and that it was the best way to describe the school.
Up until 1980, Sungkyunkwan University was a second-round school. Most of its applicants had applied to Seoul, Korea or Yonsei University in their first round and not gotten in. Many of them applied to Sungkyunkwan as backup.
A friend who attended the school recalled, “Most of us had a kind of inferiority complex. For example, if you set up a blind date between a student at one of the top three schools and a Sungkyunkwan University student, the Sungkyunkwan student wouldn’t turn up.”
He added that many of his classmates focused on passing state examinations. He himself is a CEO of a small yet solid financial company.
The engine of Sungkyunkwan’s emergence in the new administration may be the tenacity to overcome initial failure.
Seven of Park Geun-hye’s 30 cabinet-level nominees are Sungkyunkwan graduates, the second-most after Seoul National University alums. This is an unprecedented promotion for Sungkyunkwan. Some say that Gyeonggi High School and Sungkyungkwan University graduates who passed the state exam were Park’s favorites, just as members of Somang Church from Yeongnam who went to Korea University thrived during the Lee Myung-bak administration. But the comparison is unfair, as the president-elect has no personal connection to this group. Nevertheless, people feel wary about such a seemingly cliquish move.
Sungkyunkwan scholars are a symbol of the 500 years of collective intelligence of the Joseon Dynasty. They even scolded the king when he wasn’t right. They were equipped with integrity, courage and an incorruptible spirit. It may be too much to expect the Sungkyukwan alums to resemble the Joseon scholars, but hopefully they will be against cliques and factionalism. If not, their legacies may be far less noble than being immortalized on a banknote.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yi Jung-jae