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Monthly Chosun Publishes In-Depth Interview with KAIST President​
View : 11952 Date : 2009-04-23 Writer : ed_news

Monthly Chosun Publishes In-Depth Interview with KAIST President

The Monthly Chosun published by Chosun Ilbo, one of the major newspapers in Korea, carried an in-depth interview with Nam-Pyo Suh, President of KAIST, in its April 2009 issue.  Following is a translation of the article.

‘There’s No Good Golf Player among Famous MIT Professors’
By Kim Sung-dong and Lee Keun-pyung

Biographical Note: Born in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, South Korea, in 1936. Moved to the United States in 1954. Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earned M.S. from MIT, and Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. Served with MIT as professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Worked for four years as assistant director for engineering, the U.S. National Foundation of Science, from 1984. Appointed as president of KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) in July 2006. Concurrently serves as director of the Presidential New Growth Engine Search Group. Dr. Suh has some 60 international patents to his name. 
In Korea, KAIST President Suh Nam-pyo raised the torch of university reform. Since he took office at KAIST in July 2006, he initiated reform measures one after another. At the state-run university where all students were tuition-free, the new president required students to pay tuition in accordance with their academic records. For the faculty, he offered various incentives to stimulate competition and implemented a strict tenure screening system.
The waves of reform starting from KAIST spread to the whole university community in Korea. In 2007, he shocked the professors’ society by dropping 15, or more than a third of applicants, in tenure screening. The action broke the common concept of life employment in Korean universities.
This year, he rang an alarm bell to Korean society as a whole. For the 2010 academic year, the KAIST President announced an admission formula which denied any advantage of students who take the costly private teaching. KAIST will ask the principa1s of 1,000 high schools across the country to recommend one senior student each, select 300 from them through screening by admission officers, and finally admit 150 students or 16 to 18 of the total freshmen enrollment through meticulous interviews by professors.
He declared that the university from 2010 would not consider the scores from the nationwide mathematics and science tests, which have turned into a major item for university entrance screening. In-depth interview will be conducted in a way no one can prepare for it by taking courses at “hagwon” or private institutes. It was a bold measure to free students from the shackles of private teaching. Following the lead of KAIST, other universities decided to change their admission systems so that preparations at hagwon would be of little help in going to universities of choice.
The Monthly Chosun interviewed Dr. Suh on March 6, the day after KAIST announced its 2010 admission plan.
Monthly Chosun: The KAIST admission plan for 2010 that you announced yesterday can be the starting point of suppressing private teaching business in Korea.
Suh: It was a little too late. Private teaching is a big problem for the nation. It is a big problem that a half of the entire education cost in this nation goes to private teaching market.
MC: Many parents send their children overseas to escape from private teaching.
Suh: Recently I visited the University of Queensland of Australia. There I learned that some 7,000 Korean students were in the small university town. It was almost the same number as the entire KAIST enrollment. About 20 percent of University of Queensland students are from outside the country, giving the university a large income. Korean students form the largest group among the international students. They must have had many reasons to go there, but if the money spent on overseas study is used wisely here, the education environment in Korea would be greatly improved. Correcting such problems will take time.
MC: How long will it take to end private teaching in Korea?
Suh: Korea decides everything with examination. During the Joseon Kingdom, there was the Gwageo system, which is equivalent to the bureaucratic recruitment examination of today. Some pass the state test during the senior year at university, which means that they only prepared for the examination while attending university. Things will change, but it will take time. There are people who take advantage of the present situation.
We should judge the desirability of a present system by examining whether it fits the basic purpose of education. I can’t insist that the admission system we announced yesterday is the best, but at the moment it is the most desirable alternative. After 10 or 20 years when society will have changed, there may be different judgment.
MC: Do you mean KAIST’s 2010 admission plan is necessary for a change, even if not the best?
Suh: Yes. Without such an experiment, there will be no change. I should admit that it may be unreasonable to ask every high school to recommend just one student, although some schools are twice, three times bigger than others.
MC: Don’t you think gaps in the academic level between schools should be considered?
Suh: If we consider such factors too, the process will be too complicated. Anyway, we are to select 150 out of 1,000 and we are offering them chances which were absolutely unavailable in the past. We give them a chance and it is up to the students to be able to catch it or not. Opportunities should be offered equally to students from rural areas or from poor families.
MC: What about possible favoritism in the course of recommendation?
Suh: We may be cheated once but never again. If a high school principal fails to recommend a good student, it will leave a bad record in our database. At present, the database shows students from which science high school are doing well and those from which high school are negligent in study.
MC: You have database for science high schools and other special-purpose schools but not one for general high schools?
Suh: We will soon have the database for general high schools. We will be interviewing teachers too and the results will also be stored in the database. If recommended students from certain high schools prove unfit for study at KAIST, we will not accept students from those schools.
MC: You are not to give advantage to high scorers from nationwide mathematics and science contests. But we should recognize that such examinations stimulate students to study harder.
Suh: Science high schools in Korea maintain high standards of education. But everything deteriorates if it is left to go on in the same direction for a long time. Each system needs to be reviewed and corrected if any defect is found. The admission system we are going to implement will have to be corrected some time.
MC: What is the most desirable human character in your view as KAIST president?
Suh: People quite incorrectly believe that man learns everything from school. It is impossible because the world changes constantly and new knowledge is created in every minute. Education aims to produce persons who can identify problems, who can establish goals, who think and learn by themselves.
We at KAIST aim to produce the best people in the world of science and technology. When the best people lead, others follow. People who are accustomed to one-way teaching under professors can do well in the second position in a group but not as the leader. In the science and technology community, some people are able to identify problems and address them while some others do well only when they are put into a certain course of action. The Korean education system should try to produce more people of the former category. KAIST wants to find and educate this kind of people.
MC: You mean creative leaders?
Suh: Yes. There are fewer people who can lead than those who follow. KAIST attracts good students, has good facilities and good teachers, so we can produce creative leaders. In recruiting professors, we spot some attractive candidates whose resumes boast of degrees from prestigious universities and fine career experiences. But some are found unqualified through interviews. A good professor is one who can drive students to study by themselves with creative ideas of guidance. Finding such professors is not easy, but we are making progress.
MC: Have you found any drawbacks in screening students mainly through interviews?
Suh: Three professors interview 40 to 50 applicants in three days, 14 hours a day. By the afternoon of the third day, they are quite tired and find it extremely difficult to make a choice because students are mostly of high standards. Initially, they rather easily pick up the top group and the bottom group, and then they come to the hard phase of choosing from among those who are not much different from each other. It could be just a matter of luck sometimes.
MC: From your long teaching experience in the United States, what problems do you find in the examination systems in Korea?
Suh: When questions are difficult, they may have plural correct answers. The professor could have wanted to test how students think. In Korea, examiners demand testees to produce just one correct answer. There are many different ways to go to Busan from Seoul. We should teach students how to think by themselves. At KAIST, we teach freshmen students design as a compulsory course. In design class, students are given varied questions with varied answers and they are taught how to find good solutions. Perhaps, KAIST is the only university in the world that has the design course for freshmen.
MC: Design sounds like something related to fashion in search of beauty. What is the concept of design taught in KAIST?
Suh: Design was the first thing I did at KAIST for its reform. When I came to KAIST, I set the goal of making it the best S&T university in the world. I drew up nine action plans for the goal and each plan has various practical tasks. My colleagues at the university are each given a task and I oversee how they fulfill their responsibilities. As professors and staff members develop their own ways of performing their tasks, an operation system is designed at KAIST. It must be more or less same with the mass media. Who should do what task and assume responsibilities under what process, this is the system design.
MC: Then the national reconstruction project is a big design.
Suh: A nation needs a good design to be prosperous. The president should be a good designer.
MC: KAIST formally merged with the Information and Communications University (ICU) a few days ago. What is the expected effect of the merger of the two state-run universities?
Suh: The primary merit is that the merger created critical mass that provides the momentum for self-sustaining and further growth which requires certain size. In the area of information technology, KAIST has about 90 professors and ICU has 46 while our competitor universities have an IT faculty of 200 or so. We need some 50 more professors to be really competitive in the area of information technology. MIT has 100 professors in the faculty of biology while KAIST has a little more than 20. To improve the situation, I proposed to the Korea Research Institute of Biology and Bioengineering (KRIBB) which is located next to KAIST to conduct joint research. But there were people who opposed it, and I still don’t know why they opposed it.
MC: Was it a joint research, not merger that you proposed to the KRIBB?
Suh: At first, we proposed three options: merger, joint research and individual-level exchanges. But nothing happened despite the great advantage of adjoining locations. In the Daedeok Science Complex, there are too many small research institutes and critical mass is hard to achieve. They are so much specialized that only experts in the same field mingle among themselves and make little contact with people of other scientific fields. Without contact with outsiders, no great new ideas can be produced. I am not a mathematician, nor a physicist but a mechanical engineer. Yet, I believe when biologists and physicists collaborate with engineers, when they seek a fusion of their capabilities, better results can be achieved.
MC: Is it the reason why KAIST established the College of Cultural Science?
Suh: Yes. The idea is to put science and technology into culture and culture into science and technology. Some want to put science into culture while others insist that culture should be put into science and there is tension between the two opinions. But this kind of tension is a good thing because it is a creative tension which can produce good ideas.
MC: But the president should make a final decision.
Suh: I take part in the process but decision is to be made by professors and departments concerned. I am not an expert although I offer my own ideas.
MC: Do professors follow you when you make a point?
Suh: I don’t like people to follow me right away. The university will not do well if all professors just follow what the president says. I want professors to make a decision after considering my suggestion. KAIST has a department-centered operation system. Department chairs are the real boss. This system has resulted in tenured professors in their thirties and professors in their fifties without tenure.
MC: It is likely that the tenure screening has caused dissatisfactions from faculty members.
Suh: Yes. Whoever passed the tenure screening believe we have the best system and those who failed believe that the system is worst.
MC: President Lee Myung-bak attended the 2009 commencement ceremony. Have you had any opportunities to establish personal relationship?
Suh: No. I met him for the first time when he visited Daejeon as a presidential candidate. People here suggested that I discuss with him national investment in science and technology but I declined. There was too much pressure because KAIST budget would be directly affected, and the vice president made presentation.
I have met President Lee a few times through the National Science Commission. In conversations with the president, I found common thinking between us. He agreed to me when I spoke about developing electric cars and the mobile harbor, but officials at government ministries do not understand me.
MC: Did you accept the directorship of the New Growth Engine Search Group at the request of President Lee?
Suh: The Knowledge and Economy Ministry asked me to take the post. Through this public service, I have been acquainted with many people who have helped me a lot. I don’t know if I made any contribution to the Group but I am sure I benefited a lot from it.
MC: What contribution do you think KAIST can make to the development of new growth engine industry?
Suh: Most important is developing original technologies. Institutions like KAIST should be able to develop many original technologies that Korea can sell overseas. The mobile harbor and electric cars are very promising projects in this regard.
(The “mobile harbor” being developed by KAIST is a marine transportation system capable of loading and unloading cargo with a ship being at anchor in the sea far from the shore in a situation of congestion. Equipped with a self-propulsion apparatus and a loading/unloading system, the mobile harbor comes to ships far from the land to handle cargoes.)
MC: Is the mobile harbor project to receive government support?
Suh: We are trying to get government funding for it. Some in the government are in favor while some others are desperately against it for reasons that I don’t know.
MC: What about the “online electric car” KAIST developed?
Suh: It is a very important project which promises to resolve the problems of high energy cost and air pollution. It is most suitable for cities like Seoul but there are people who oppose its commercial production.
MC: President Lee had a test-riding in the online electric car, but government support has not been decided yet. Why?
Suh: I can’t understand it. We are seeing a project stalled by the rejection of some section chiefs even though the president endorsed it. These opponents are not scientists. Previously developed electric cars need big batteries while the KAIST model requires a small battery. I am confident that the better product always beats the worse one, the more efficient technology emerges as the winner at the end.
MC: When do you think can KAIST overtake MIT where you belonged?
Suh: Within 10 years, I believe. Let me tell you this. KAIST established the Department of Marine Systems this year, but MIT has abolished its marine systems department. They only taught how to build ships for a long time so students did not apply and the department has been merged with the mechanical engineering department. At KAIST, we teach mobile harbor as well as shipbuilding at the new marine systems department. We are behind in some areas but we are ahead in many others. I am sure we can overtake MIT in about 10 years.
MC: Are donations to the university made smoothly?
Suh: We received 70 billion won ($60 million) last year and we are optimistic about attaining the goal of 1 trillion won in donations.
MC: What is the most difficult problem in collecting donations?
Suh: It is not easy for a man of my age to go about asking people to donate money that they earned in hard way. But it has to be done to operate the university.
MC: You are said to be a Korean-born scientist closest to receiving the Nobel Prize.
Suh: I am not a scientist but an engineer and I not at all interested in the Nobel Prize or anything like that. If one endeavors to contribute to society with research, prizes come to him.
MC: How is the prospect of Korean scientists winning the Nobel Prize?
Suh: I am positive. There are many young professors in Korea who are engaged in very interesting research projects. But what is important is globalizing their research efforts, by competing and collaborating with top-notch scientists of the world.
MC: How do you compare the cultures and climates of academic communities in the United States and Korea?
Suh: Famous U.S. professors I know are real workaholics. They devote themselves to research and are interested in little else. A university develops when it has many such professors. I want to make a point that there are few avid golfers among famous professors at MIT. They have no time to spend on the golf course. I see many good golf players among professors in Korea.
MC: Do Korean professors cooperate well among themselves in research?
Suh: What I realized first upon returning to Korea was that professors rarely discuss their academic matters in private conversations. They discuss everything but their own research work. This was something I found different from what I had witnessed in the United States where professors openly exchange ideas about their academic fields. What we need in the academic society is opening our hearts about what we are working on and what we have achieved. New ideas evolve in the course of such interactions. I’m inspired these days as I find younger professors gradually show such attitudes.
MC: What was the most difficult part in your reform efforts at KAIST?
Suh: Persuading people was of course the most difficult part. I explained to professors the purpose of changing the existing system and tried to win their consent on the process to achieve our objectives. But I was not able to persuade them all. Perhaps about half must still believe that the past system is better. The common trait of people is that they judge something is good or bad based on whether they benefit from it or not.
MC: You went to the United States in the second year of high school in Seoul. Weren’t you hesitant to decide to come back to Korea after so many years?
Suh: It wasn’t an easy decision to pack up and come here. I had many things to do over there, which was the reason why I did not catch previous opportunities to return to Korea. Children and their education were big obstacles in the past. But this time I just made up my mind and now I realize that it was a good decision. 
MC: Did you believe it was the last opportunity to serve your motherland?
Suh: It is too much to say so. I am trying a lot but I don’t know if I am of any help to the country.


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