Kaist needs engaging leadership

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Kaist needs engaging leadership

Korean-American Kang Steve Sung-mo has been inaugurated as president of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist), the country’s most prestigious engineering school.

Kang, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was the first Korean-born head of a four-year American college, serving as chancellor of the University of California, Merced, from 2007 to 2011.

With his rich experience in teaching, research, invention and entrepreneurship in computer engineering, as well as university governance, Kang is expected to breathe new air into the elite Korean science and technology school that has been subdued by a series of student suicides and conflict between the former president and a group of professors.

The new president will have to carry out some of the sweeping reforms of his predecessor, Suh Nam-pyo, while fixing and cleaning up problematic side effects of the rigid teaching and academic rules that Suh imposed.

He may also have to fight the council of Kaist professors over his predecessor’s policy of applying stricter tenure rules for professors and recruitment guidelines based on research performance.

The tougher set of integrity guidelines for professors is necessary to upgrade the state-funded academy to a university of a global ranking. A school that gives scholarships of over 10 million won ($9,234) per student a year demands extraordinary integrity and performance from both the students and lecturers.

However, Kang should learn from the mistakes of his two predecessors, who also came from the United States. They were aloof and communicated poorly with local professors.

No reforms, no matter how good the intentions, can succeed without engaging leadership.

A reform-minded leader in any kind of organization must understand and communicate effectively with everyone who will be affected by change.

Kang, in his inauguration speech, said he will do his best so students can devote themselves to studies and research. He also promised to keep his office door open, suggesting he will be willing to talk with anyone.

He should set an example in overcoming incessant distrust and conflict in the Korean university community through dialogue and empathy.

Kang earned the nickname “Captain Smooth” when he left his last American university. We hope he can finish his term at Kaist with a similarly laudable moniker.
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