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Tenure system change at KAIST in South Korea

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) which ranked 68 in the world at The Time Higher Education by Thomson Reuters in 2013. KAIST invited Dr. Nam Pyo Suh from MIT in Boston a few years ago, and lots of changes were occurred at KAIST. Especially, a new tenure system and an English lecture for all courses make a huge wave to current faculties, staffs, and students. His efforts to change old, cliche, and monotonic KAIST people who fell into mannerism had to be respected by all scholars or governors in South Korea. Unfortunately, his dramatic changes also made several side effects and adverse reactions by all existing people at KAIST. The news article which is below describes what he left after discharging the president of KAIST. His trials are very respectful, but too much far away from the current  universities in South Korea.

No Looking Back: Kaist’s President Fights for His Legacy of Change in South Korea

No Looking Back: Kaist's President Fights to Preserve His Legacy of Change in South Korea 1

Jae-Hyun Seok

At 74, Nam Pyo Suh is campaigning for a second four-year term as president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

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By David McNeill

Daejeon, South Korea

Four years after taking over the presidency of South Korea’s top science university, Nam Pyo Suh faces the end of his term. Few expect him to go quietly.

A polarizing, driven figure, Mr. Suh has bulldozed through what many call the most profound changes in the 39-year history of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which is at the vanguard of academic science research in the world’s 13th-largest economy.

In the process, he has energized the country’s entire higher-education system and has been frank about the challenges of turning a solid national university into a globally renowned institution.

At 74, the Korean-American knows he should be preparing to put his feet up in the garden of his Boston home. Instead he is trying for an unprecedented second four-year term and warning, in the language of the mechanical engineer he once was, about the dangers of complacency.

“Just like a spring being compressed, there is a force that bounces back,” he says about what he fears could happen if he steps down in July. “Institutions like to go back to their old ways. That is what we have to resist.”

Mr. Suh’s achievements are considerable. He has doubled Kaist’s budget, to $421-million, with most of it coming from the government. About $167-million in private money rolled in last year, including $10-million from the Korean-American businessman Byiung Jun Park, whose gift was the largest monetary donation in the university’s history.

The cash was used to build the Chunghi & BJ Park Kaist Institute, the university’s state-of-the-art venue for multidisciplinary research and one of 11 new campus buildings completed or started during Mr. Suh’s tenure.

“That is all thanks to his efforts,” says Sang Soo Kim, vice president of Kaist Institutes.

New Tenure System

Few quibble about the money-raising skills of the former assistant director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, but Mr. Suh’s reforms have sometimes raised eyebrows—and hackles. Kaist is now an all-English-language campus, thanks to a presidential decree four years ago that scrapped Korean as the language of instruction, a move that many students say alienated older faculty members.

“Most of the professors are not native English speakers, and they complain that they’re not teaching to their full capacity,” says Jaeho Shin, a second-year chemical-and-biomolecular-engineering student. Students have been quietly told that some professors will revert to their native Korean once Mr. Suh leaves.

More controversial still has been Mr. Suh’s approach to tenure review. In a country where a university position has traditionally been for life, he has put most of his professors through an exacting peer-review process that he estimates has shed about 25 percent of the university’s 550 faculty members. In return, he has hired 135 people, personally sitting in on each interview. His hires have lowered the average age of the faculty and increased the number of foreigners working at Kaist.

“Tenure was more or less automatic when I came,” he explains. “Now it is all based on merit.”

That move might have been unpopular, but it has won praise from independent academic observers.

“His regulations on tenure are important and innovative,” says Gerard A. Postiglione, a specialist on Asian education reform at the University of Hong Kong. “It’s a brave move for the Asian region and one that may catch on, for good reason.”

Mr. Postiglione thinks Mr. Suh has, if anything, been too conservative. He hasn’t done away with the mandatory retirement age, for example. And Mr. Suh himself is an example of what universities could miss by forcing academics out too early, Mr. Postiglione said.

The shock waves from Mr. Suh’s initiatives have reverberated throughout South Korea’s staid colleges, which he and other critics say have been stifled by decades of lethargy, heavy government influence, and isolation from international competition.

Strict tenure review has been adopted elsewhere, including at Seoul National, the nation’s most prestigious and conservative university. Kaist’s main competitor, Pohang University of Science and Technology, has also paid unofficial tribute to Mr. Suh by making English its lingua franca.

His supporters say Kaist has started an academic revolution.

“Seoul National cannot change without some sort of motivation, and that is coming from this college,” says Sang Yup Lee, a renowned professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Kaist. “Then the whole country changes. That’s how things happen here.”

Some universities are also reportedly considering another of Mr. Suh’s more-unpopular measures: forcing poorly performing students to pay part or all of their tuition, which is typically not required at public universities. “The penalty for poor grades is very high,” says another student at Kaist’s Graduate School of Innovation and Technology Management. “Some students are paying $15,000 a year.” The university’s student association is campaigning to have the fees dropped.

Mr. Suh acknowledges that his medicine has occasionally been bitter but argues that it has made for a better university. “All of our students are smart,” he says, pointing out that just 2 or 3 percent pay full tuition. “So we make the assumption that students who don’t perform have distractions. We’re simply trying to capture their attention.”

Scrapping Korean, while “painful” for some faculty members, has given his university an edge in global scientific research and helped flatten academic hierarchies, he says. “The Korean language makes it very hard to have one-on-one equal relationships,” he says, “because it is so deferential to age and position. That’s not good for innovation.”

Breaking Down Walls

Under Mr. Suh’s direction, Kaist is building up its strengths in the hard sciences, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, and optical measurement.

He came to office in 2006 pledging to train the university’s research guns on what he calls “big payoff” projects. Until then, some academics here say, there was no coordinated research strategy on the campus. The first fruits of Mr. Suh’s more centralized approach are two eye-catching—and high-risk—ventures that he hopes will put Kaist on the international map.

The mobile harbor, a $25-million hydraulics-based system for unloading ship cargo at sea, won investment backing this year from parts of South Korea’s giant Hyundai and Daewoo conglomerates. But commercialization is still somewhere off the horizon.

And the Kaist online electric vehicle—a bus powered by an underground grid—was greenlighted this year by the City of Seoul for limited trials after South Korea’s president, Lee Myung Bak, helped push through $25-million in financing.

The vehicle’s developers say it could transform the capital, a city of 10 million people smothered in concrete and smog from breakneck industrialization. The payoff is still unclear, but for Mr. Suh, the trial vindicates his strategy of pushing his researchers hard for solutions to “humanity’s big problems.”

“That’s what a truly great university should do,” he says.

Both projects embrace a core Suh philosophy: the need to break down academic and administrative walls. The online vehicle, for example, pulled in many of the university’s core faculties, including electrical, industrial, and mechanical engineering, quantum mechanics, and nuclear development, as well as the president’s office.

Kaist has set up a company to help commercialize the technology. “This was a true collaborative project,” says Mr. Suh.

Rankings Results

He points to his university’s rapid climb up the world rankings as evidence that his tough love is working. The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings placed Kaist at 198th when Mr. Suh took over. Last year it was ranked 69th. (It fares less well in Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s rankings, which put more emphasis on scientific publications and place Kaist in the 201-302 range.)

“We’re going to be in the top 10 of the best science-and-technology universities in the world,” says Mr. Suh. “That’s our goal, and everybody knows that the things I did were aimed at making that happen.”

The test of that statement comes next month, when Mr. Suh comes up for re-election. It is a marked break with tradition in South Korea, where presidential office—political and academic—has been strictly limited to one term.

The contest is likely to boil down to Mr. Suh and Sung Chul Shin, a former vice president widely seen as more of an insider. The current president’s age and unpopularity with some older faculty members is likely to work against him. He personally gives himself a 50-50 chance.

“A lot of people think I should stay, and a lot think I should go,” he says. “But whoever comes after me will face a lot of pressure to go back to the old system.

“The most encouraging thing for me is the number of people here who are now world-class scholars,” he continues. “In another four or five years’ time, the people I have brought in will become core members of faculty. When they become the center of gravity, then I think Kaist will be there.”

Naturally, many of the young faculty members he has brought with him agree. “I like what he’s doing—a lot of us do,” says an American researcher, James Morrison, who is a professor of industrial engineering. “We don’t want the spring to bounce back.”


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