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Professor’s presidency criticized

Former MechE head faces student suicides at Korean univ.

Students and faculty at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) have become concerned over a recent spate of suicides at the university. Since January, four students and a professor have killed themselves, with the most recent student suicide occurring on April 7. Criticism has mounted against President Nam P. Suh ’59 — an MIT professor emeritus — who has been accused of contributing to the suicides by increasing academic competition through his policies. Nine student suicides have occurred since the beginning of Suh’s presidency.

Suh, who was first elected President of KAIST in 2006, has been an MIT faculty member since 1970. He was head of the Mechanical Engineering Department from 1991 to 2001 and nominally remains the director of MIT’s Park Center for Complex Systems. Suh serves as the Ralph E. and Eloise F. Cross Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering at MIT while maintaining his position at KAIST. Suh has made significant scientific contributions to axiomatic design theory and the field of tribology.

Suh’s original policy of withdrawing tuition-free status to students whose GPAs dropped below 3.0 on a 4.0 scale came under fire from parents and students who said it added unnecessary academic pressure. Under that policy, a student’s tuition increased as his or her GPA dropped further below 3.0. The curve-based grading system in KAIST ensures that 20 percent of students fall below this 3.0 line, and students are no longer allowed to retake classes in which they under-perform. While Suh’s policy has been implemented in many universities outside South Korea, the shame that comes with poor performance is especially high in South Korea.

“Many students may have to find other means of earning money if they are forced to pay tuition, and these students are often already highly pressured from their studies,” expressed KAIST MBA student Youn Kyu Park in an email to The Tech. “There is a counseling clinic on campus, but it has not been effective.”

Park also had concerns that the system has de-emphasized creativity at KAIST. Overall, he felt the new KAIST policies have had a strong impact on student suicides.

Suh has also required mathematics and science classes, which make up most of KAIST’s curriculum, to be taught in English. This change is especially difficult for students who spent most of their lives learning in Korean. Professors have also expressed frustration over this policy, as many find they teach far less effectively in English.

In addition, the Korean education system has a reputation for being especially stressful and competitive from the elementary to secondary levels, although less intense in universities. The recent increase in competition at KAIST has been difficult its students, who have always been the top students in a system where pressure is especially high.

While he served as the head of mechanical engineering at MIT, Suh broadened the department’s academic focus. He transformed the course by combining information, biology, and design science with its original focus on physics.

At KAIST, Suh has been committed to increasing the teaching and research quality. Suh has strengthened professor tenure requirements during his presidency at KAIST, which was particularly alarming for a country where professors are seldom fired. South Korean professors could often maintain their jobs without doing significant research, but Suh’s policy makes doing so more difficult.

A larger emphasis on competition at KAIST has been evident since the presidency of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin PhD ’79, which lasted from 2004 to 2006. Laughlin, who felt KAIST needed to be more competitive as a technical and scientific institution, tried to add liberal arts programs, encouraged teaching in English, and instituted the tuition penalty for underperforming students. His reforms conflicted with Korean cultural norms and received negative responses, so his two-year contract was not renewed. Suh has been more successful at instituting such changes, but he is still come under increasing fire.

Suh has held open discussions about his policies with students at KAIST, with the first taking place on April 8. The forum, which included the Undergraduate Student Council, culminated with Suh declaring April 11 and 12 as an official period of condolence. During this class-free period, each department was instructed to host a conference with its students to discuss the reasons for the suicides.

On April 13, the Undergraduate Student Council held an Emergency Undergraduate Student Assembly and conducted a vote on whether or not President Suh’s reforms were a failure. The vote narrowly failed; 416 students considered the reforms to be negative — only 10 people short of the majority. However, the assembly’s other proposals passed, which included recommending abolishing the tuition fee system, amending the English-only policy, and increasing summer classes. Suh responded by putting all approved items up for discussion.

Suh has already abolished the tuition fee policy and will be cutting the number of classes in English. Starting this September, all KAIST students will be guaranteed eight free semesters of education, regardless of GPA.

2 Comments
1
Kwang Soon Moon over 8 years ago

Prof. Suh did an excellent job, making KAIST a better place to learn and do research, enhancing the academic status of the university. However, the latest incidents raised some concerns on his academic reform policy among the critical media, resulting in the parliamentary enquiry. After many moments of soul searching, however, the learned people in Korea accepted the growing pain, and reached a conclusion that his reform policy should be continued not only for the KAIST, but also for the entire community of universities in the nation.

President Lee Myung Bak gave a sounding approval for Suh's performance in his congratulatory speech delivered at the 40th Anniversary of KAIST on May 17. The presidential special visit to KAIST was televised nationwide by all major TV at the prime time evening news. In reality, the President merely put a cap on the strong supportive feeling of Suh's performance by Korean people. (http://news.kbs.co.kr/politics/2011/05/17/2293113.html#)

2
Gilgamesh over 8 years ago

I cannot read or understand Korean, so I do not know if what comment 1 says is true, that Koreans after some reflection are reluctantly supporting the policies of Suh. A Google search shows mostly critical coverage of Suh's KAIST policies, but the results are all English and it may be possible that due to "cultural norms" mentioned in The Tech article, this news is covered differently in Korean media than it is in English language media. It would be nice to hear some more explanation of what "Korean cultural norms" were violated first by Laughlin and later by Suh.

I do not disagree with Suh's policies, but they can be tweaked. If KAIST is a Korean public institution, attendance by students is funded by Korean taxpayers and the government and university has an obligation to ensure that the funds are not squandered, including funding continued attendance by underperforming students. However, since the grading system always ensures 20 of students will be considered underperforming, a better way to save taxpayer money will be just to dismiss those students, not let them limp along with the added burden of having to pay the rest of their way. With grades like theirs, they would not be able to get jobs later to pay off debts anyway. This would be better both for Korean taxpayers and underperforming students. The taxpayers are spared the expense and these underperforming students are freed sooner to do other things for which they may be better suited. This way, academic Darwinism is still enforced (at 20 percent each marking period, it would be draconian, so some adjustment may be needed to that threshold or redefine it as some kind of time average), and while the stress of avoiding dismissal is there, there would not be the stress of increased tuition.

I wonder if any of these Korean students, now opportunistically using these suicides as occasion to force change in Suh's strict policies, reflected on what THEY as classmates could have done to help take the edge off of competitive environment and foster closer community for their departed peers. If they really want to assign blame for these deaths, they should look to themselves before they pass judgment others.

This being said, suicide ultimately occurs due to the choice of the person who commits it. Survivors often feel guilt for not having made life better for the people who choose to go. But why didn't the thousands of other KAIST students commit suicide? Individual choices.