With the end of President Sung-Mo Kang’s four-year term on February 23, the KAIST Board of Trustees elected Dr. Sung-Chul Shin of the Department of Physics as the 16th President of KAIST. As the first KAIST alumni to hold this prestigious position, President Shin has delineated a bold vision for the school’s future, highlighting key sectors for development and planning new academic systems to prepare students for the next big industrial revolution. To find out more about our new leader and his ideas for KAIST’s future, The KAIST Herald sat down with President Shin for an interview.
Good afternoon and congratulations on your election. To start off the interview, please introduce yourself to our readers.
I first came to KAIST as a graduate student in 1975 and graduated in 1977. I then became a professor at KAIST in 1989 in the physics department and taught for 22 years, holding various administrative positions while continuing with my research. Then in 2011, I accepted the government’s offer and became President of Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST). Upon reaching the end of the designated four-year term, I was asked, due to popular demand, to continue to hold the position for a second term. I agreed; however, we reduced the second term to only two years. So after six years at DGIST, I was fortunately discovered by the KAIST Board of Trustees, and after due process, they elected me to be the next president of KAIST. Personally, I am greatly honored as the first KAIST alumni to lead my alma mater. This is an accomplishment to KAIST as well, as it indicates that KAIST has grown enough to have produced enough quality individuals who can return to run the institution without the need to invite distinguished leaders from outside. Of course, on the other hand, this also means that I have been tasked with a big responsibility.
You have previously held administrative positions at KAIST and have served as president of DGIST for six years. How do you think these experiences will help you?
I believe that these experiences will help me greatly. I have often joked with reporters whom I have known for a long time that it has taken me 13 years of travelling around the country and the world to finally return to KAIST [laughs]. It has indeed been a long journey away from KAIST. However, I have gained a lot, and learned a lot from the many experiences. During this time, I had the chance to meet with various influential individuals from diverse backgrounds, including politicians, national assemblymen, businessmen, and CEOs, which helped me shape the vision for KAIST’s future. Additionally, my six-year experience serving as the President of DGIST will help me a great deal because DGIST was founded under the same special provision as KAIST, sharing many of the same processes including policies, financial cycles, fiscal budgets, and academic schedules. So in a sense, I have had six years of practice in order to successfully run an institution like KAIST. My hope is that by the end of my term here at KAIST, people will ask for my reelection as a testament to my successful presidency, as was the case with DGIST when I left.
In the vision for KAIST, you focused on the expansion of the undeclared major system and e-learning. Could you please elaborate on these points?
These plans were initially based on the question of how KAIST should educate its students to be prepared and ready for the eminent Fourth Industrial Revolution. From a societal perspective, this revolution would revolve around an interdisciplinary and hyper-connected approach to scientific research and development. My plan will deal with three key aspects: integration of disciplines, collaboration, and ethics. In integrating the various disciplines, we must train the student in not only the fundamental sciences, but also in the humanities. In order to effectively accomplish this goal, I am in the process of creating a four-year undergraduate track in an undeclared major. In contrast to a specialized major track, I believe that an undeclared major track will produce graduates who will be able to rise higher and achieve leadership roles in companies and industries. This conclusion was not based on my imagination, but rather on my direct interactions with CEOs of Korea’s largest as well as mid-sized corporations. The landscape of Korea has changed dramatically in the past decades and we now need skills and talents that are not limited to one profession. In order to keep pace with and lead the global science & technology (S&T) sectors, we need individuals who are knowledgeable in a wide range of the basics including physics, chemistry, biology, statistics, programming, engineering design, and automation. So what these CEOs were telling me was that they are capable of teaching specialized skills but they need employees who have a deep understanding of all the fundamental disciplines. Even in the fields of research, we can see that interdisciplinary methodologies are on the rise. I am therefore planning to create an undeclared major track as an alternative option to the traditional majors, minors, etc. offered at KAIST by the beginning of next year spring semester. To answer the second part of your question, I do believe that e-learning must play a more active role in education. Firstly, I plan to create an online environment that is conducive to interactive learning. And I think that developing KAIST Learning Management System (KLMS) will serve that purpose. Secondly, I wish to utilize Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to integrate top quality humanities courses from across the world into our undergraduate curriculum. I realize that many of our students have a hunger for a wide range of quality humanities courses and I believe that a creditrecognition system with select MOOCs will be a desirable solution. Thirdly, I would like to work with our professors in developing electronic textbooks that will allow for videos to be included in the text, new editions to simply be updated via the Internet, better representation of 3D structures such as protein molecules, and the ability to have online discussions within the textbook content. However, this goal will take a long time and it is not something that will be available soon.
In your 2017 Matriculation Ceremony speech, you stated that English communication skills are no longer a choice but are a must. However, there are still many endemic issues regarding the availability of English as well as the quality of English in classrooms and on campus. How do you plan to address this problem?
I stated that English is a must because I believe that KAIST must be a world leading university now. And in order to do that, English is no longer an option when considering the amount of communication and networking that is required in the global scale. So over the next years, KAIST must be proactive in introducing more international students and faculty to make English feel more natural and widespread on campus. Of course I understand that it is difficult to become fluent in English while living in the country of one’s mother tongue. But for the students, I believe that they are more than capable of enhancing their English skills with the implementation of quality programs. I am also thinking of creating “English only” zones on campus where several fluent English speakers will always be available for a chat. In conjunction with creating English programs for Koreans, I also want to provide enough opportunities for learning Korean to the international community here at KAIST. I believe that learning the language of the country of residence helps develop an emotional attachment and fondness for that place. Eventually I hope that KAIST could be the first university in Korea to achieve a bilingual campus, where English and Korean are spoken and understood by students and faculty alike.
There are concerns — as the number of international students rise — as to whether or not it is in the interest and duty of the Korean government to continue providing tuition exemption to all KAIST students, including those who are not Korean. What is your response to this criticism?
If KAIST, and by extension the Korean government, is financially able to continue to provide Korean students with full tuition scholarships, then there is no question that this benefit must be given to international students as well. First, we need to bring in students from all countries which will increase our global foothold and allow more KAIST graduates to be positioned in the world. Second, Korea has historically been a country that has received more aid from the world than it has given. So it is now our duty to provide aid to other countries and their students. And I want to tell KAIST students that they should pursue their careers with the philosophy of contributing to society. As I plan to increase the number of international students at KAIST, I will also make sure that they are the best and brightest in their respective motherlands by including recommendations from their countries’ embassies as well as from their academy of sciences.
What is the stance of your administration regarding students voting on choosing future KAIST presidents and having a say in policy changes such as mandating students who were admitted starting from 2016 to choose from either advanced major, double major, minor, or individually designed major?
We will have to address this issue carefully since we are, in essence, a school, and therefore cannot exist without its students. However, students are still in a state of mental growth and are generally immature in nature. So when a student or a group of students claim their voting rights, they must come from a qualified position with the ability to accept the responsibilities that follow the usage of those rights. I am perfectly willing to work with the students to achieve this balance between rights and responsibility. What is your opinion on the Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) efforts to essentially end the policy that provides military exemption through state-funded research? I had actually written a column piece in the Maeil Business Newspaper on this issue last year. In short, I argued that the MND was being too hasty in their plans to end the special policy. In my opinion, Korea has not advanced enough — both economically and technologically — to abandon our policies designed to promote scientific research. In order to continue this policy for the long-run, KAIST must remind Korea of its importance in the world of S&T. That is why I envision KAIST to be at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will require such policies that support research via military exemption. I am planning to form a committee made up of individuals from all over the world including KAIST, and perhaps even a few of our students who will oversee my plans for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Lastly, is there anything that you would like to say to our students?
Korea has grown considerably since the years when I was a college student and I view the students in places like KAIST to be extremely fortunate that they can aspire to be greater than their parents could. “Dream a big dream” is what I would like to tell students to do. Do not limit yourself to a normal life but paint yourself a life where you can contribute to your community, your country, and the world.