Universities suffer trust crisis

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Universities suffer trust crisis


olleges and universities in Korea have once again become the object of public criticism. This time, the pension contribution for the faculty is the issue. Instead of having individual members pay their way, some schools paid the pension contribution from the school account, which is mainly funded by tuition. Naturally, the students at those schools are enraged, and the case confirmed that the schools prioritize the welfare of their faculty and staff over the educational conditions of their students.

In fact, it is not the first time that colleges and universities have found themselves in the hot seat. Plagiarism cases emerge frequently, and sexual harassment cases are not uncommon. Illegal use of research funds has been caught from time to time. Not so long ago, the Board of Audit and Inspection conducted accounting inspections on nearly all schools and disclosed the violators. Students used the inspection outcome as one of the grounds for a tuition cut.

Nowadays, colleges and universities have largely lost their authority and public confidence. In the past, the university presidents were considered the elders of society. Today, even young students don’t have much respect for them.

After all, Korean universities are not the only higher educational institutions under criticism. While many American universities are considered the best in the world, “college-bashing” is increasing in the United States. Research fund misuse cases are not rare in the U.S. A renowned biologist, who was a Nobel Prize-winner and a university president, stepped down from his presidency due to his alleged involvement in a scandal. Stanford University was under investigation for years after federal research funds were allegedly used to cover the maintenance cost of the president’s housing. While Stanford was cleared of the allegation, the authority and reputation of the school was largely damaged in the process. Professor Derek Bok, who had served as president of Harvard University, said that criticism for universities has never been so severe.

In the latest trend of college-bashing, Donald Kennedy, who served as president of Stanford University, analyzed in his book “Academic Duty” that even though more funds go to colleges and universities for research and operation, the general public thinks that the benefits of investment in higher education do not come back to society. In other words, academic institutes are perceived as one of the interest groups absorbing social resources for themselves rather than for the public interest.

In order to resolve the trust issue, colleges should be faithful to their original duty of investing in education while fulfilling their social responsibilities. In fact, colleges in America are constantly revising curriculums to educate talent needed for the era of convergence in the 21st century and make efforts to contribute to society by providing free online lectures.

What about schools in Korea? Local colleges and universities are faced with a crisis of trust as well. For example, though schools boast that they educated the talents who made the rapid development of Korea possible, corporate managers constantly criticize that schools provide education that is distant from the field. Lately, many colleges and universities attained remarkable growth in academic research and drastically climbed the global college rankings.

But students and the public are not enthusiastic about the changes as they think these improvements have not contributed to the original duty of higher education, which is educating creative talents. People are also skeptical that research outcomes can help resolve the urgent issues of our society as evidenced by their cynical perception that more papers only means a fancier curriculum vitae for professors and higher rankings for schools. That could explain why an increasing number of people support the strong demand to half college tuition.

When our colleges and universities lose people’s trust, they won’t be able to grow into internationally prestigious institutions. The shortcut to overcome the crisis is to return to the basics. Schools should commit themselves to their primary mission of educating students and recover their public role. It is truly regrettable that no university administrator is willing to take accountability for cases like the pension contribution scandal and that few members of our colleges and universities speak up to overcome the crisis in earnest.

* Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is the President of Institute for Basic Science and physics professor at Seoul National University.

by Oh Se-jung
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