SNU’s Oh Yeon-cheon uses childhood failure as lesson

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SNU’s Oh Yeon-cheon uses childhood failure as lesson


Oh Yeon-cheon, President of Seoul National University

Oh Yeon-cheon, the 25th president of Seoul National University (SNU), has gone to elite schools for most of his life. He graduated from Gyeonggi High School, the best high school in the province, and of course went on to study at Seoul National University. After passing the civil service exam, Oh traveled across the Pacific, obtaining his master’s and doctorate degrees in financial management from New York University.

Only once did Oh experienced educational failure - in 1963, when he did not make the cut for Gyeonggi Middle School on his first try. Back in the 1960s, exams were not only taken to enter top universities, they were also prerequisites for acceptance to high schools and middle schools, too. And those who failed had to enroll somewhere else or apply again next year.

“That failure in my boyhood turned into an asset,” Oh said. “It was an opportunity for me to stand independently. So, whenever I faced difficult times later on in my life, I was able to think about that childhood experience and overcome the problem.”

Oh is famously difficult to interview. Since being inaugurated as the president of Seoul National University in 2010, he has only given one interview.

“I think I have to refrain from saying things that might reflect my personal opinion because I have been entrusted with a public position representing the university,” he explained.

Despite that belief, Oh spent two hours with the JoongAng Sunday for an in-depth interview.

The interview was initially to talk more about Oh’s recent lecture at the Stanford University Asia-Pacific Research Center about Japan’s denials of its war history, but the conversation moved on to other issues, such as Seoul National University’s admissions policy changes.

Q. Seoul National University recently announced it would allow liberal arts high school students to apply for the university’s medical school, starting in the 2015 admission season. But the school immediately withdrew the announcement following criticism that students may flock to foreign-language high schools to get in more easily. Was this withdrawal a cancellation or a hold?

A. The word “reconsideration” would best describe our decision. We first looked at this policy with the idea that there is a problem in dividing high school students into two groups - liberal arts and basic science. Actually, our natural science departments accept students who were liberal arts-track students in high school. Our initial aim was to apply the same policy to the medical school admission system. But because the medical school is extremely popular among parents, the arguments that our policy grants an advantage to special-purpose high schools, such as foreign-language high schools, science high schools and autonomous high schools, started to gain traction among the public. Some others worried that the ways of entering medical school are narrowing down. Due to unexpected public reaction, our staff decided to reconsider this policy.

The word “reconsideration” may mean the policy could be implemented in the near future, as early as the 2016 admissions season.

For now, it is difficult to explain any further about this issue.

(An SNU professor who was also sitting in the interview said, “This issue raised so much controversy, it would be hard to discuss further for a while.”)

One major change coming to your admissions policy in 2015 is an expansion in the number of students recruited in the regular admissions round, which is solely based on scores on the College Scholastic Ability Test, raising it to 24.6 percent of students from the current 17.4 percent. Some contend that this change would favor special purpose high schools and autonomous school students, who tend to achieve higher CSAT score than ordinary high school students.

When we first constructed this policy, the number of students entering from what kind of high school was not under consideration. Instead, our main goal was to screen for talented people with high growth potential. Whether this policy turns out to be more advantageous to certain kinds of schools was supposed to come next. SNU structures its admissions policy based on the idea that it has to assist the nation’s high schools and public education system.

Why did SNU eliminate the essay and oral exams from the regular admissions round?

People have demanded a simplified college admissions process. The media also keeps pointing out that the admissions process is too complicated, forcing parents into getting help from private institutions.

When we statistically analyzed freshmen, there was not much of a gap in actual academic performance between students who were assessed only with the CSAT and those screened additionally with the essay and oral exams. So we reached the conclusion that it would be right to reduce the burden on students and their parents. It is hard for me to agree with those analyses that the policy favors special purpose schools and autonomous high schools.

About one sixth of students accepted to SNU during the 2014 admissions season were from regular high schools, and about half of those coming from Seoul hailed from one of the three rich neighborhoods in the city’s southeast: Gangnam, Seocho and Songpa. Due to such trends, many criticized SNU for contributing to the polarization between social classes rather than alleviating it.

Unlike popular private universities, SNU is in a difficult position because it has to consider two policy goals: meeting the public’s demand for social fairness and nurturing top talents into international leaders. It is not easy to find a balance between these two goals. We always ponder how to harmonize fairness and excellence.

Which side are you emphasizing?

Exactly half and half on both sides. After being elected as president, I have strived to give equal opportunity to all students from different social backgrounds, like the special admissions round for SNU’s agriculture and life science department for graduates from agriculture high schools. At the same time, I am trying to recruit students with high potential.

Samsung Group recently tried to implement a new recruitment policy, allowing college presidents to recommend a fixed number of students but immediately withdrew the plan after public criticism. What do you think of this policy? After all, SNU was allowed to recommend 110 students, five fewer than Sungkyunkwan University.

I thought Samsung rolled out this policy as a solution to alleviate its burdensome recruitment test, which has been considered as difficult as state exams. I think it is important, first of all, to understand the company’s predicament. And I do not think the number of students assigned to SNU was small.

The competition to get into foreign universities is also fierce. The numbers of talented young Koreans who, rather than going to the West, enroll in colleges in other Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, has recently increased. According to worldwide university ranking released in 2013 by the Times Higher Education, the National University of Singapore ranked 26th, the University of Hong Kong was 43rd, and SNU was 44th.

Hong Kong and Singapore are practically English-speaking countries, while Korea dominantly speaks our own mother tongue. It is wrong to make simple comparisons between universities in two distinct languages and cultures when it comes to foreign student recruitment performance and global competency. Last year, we launched the SNU President Fellowship program, which recruits foreign talents pursuing doctorate degrees. I would like to emphasize that SNU is a university that is larger than the National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong, which allows researchers to study in a more comprehensive and strategic manner.

There are many applicants who failed to enter SNU or other universities. What kind of advice would you like to give them?

I moved to Seoul from Gongju, South Chungcheong, when I was in the fourth grade and took the Gyeonggi Middle School entrance exam two years later. Back in those days, the physical fitness test accounted for 25 points of the school’s 150-point test. Without much admission information, I ended up getting only half of those 25 points on the physical test because I never prepared for it. After being rejected from that prestigious middle school, I started preparing for next year’s entrance exam while enrolling in another school. I spent a long time thinking about myself and decided to do my best to avoid any more failures. I came to think that laziness without effort is a wrong. The experience of failure eventually turned into a precious opportunity that made me learn a sense of independence and modesty.

Your four-year term as SNU president comes to an end in July. A reappointment is theoretically possible. Would like to continue for another term?

Anything an incumbent president mention about the next election could be misleading.


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