Ever since its inception, KAIST’s ambitious promise to increase the ratio of foreign professors has been, well, ambitious. The ratio has always stayed in the single digits, and despite the claim of the previous presidents to go as far as double the percentage, the number has only increased to 9% (53 total) from 7% in 2014. Recently inaugurated President Shin again vowed for a goal of 15%, but exactly how he intends to hire a minimum of 10 new foreign professors every year remains opaque.
Implementations aside, the rabid move to recruit more foreign professors strikes an uncomfortable chord — the quest seems to serve the self-interest of the institution as another addition to the institution’s list of “first”s, perhaps sidelining the question of the benefits resulting from such a pursuit. The instituting of more foreign professors should not be the ultimate goal, but rather the driving force of KAIST’s excellence in research and instruction.
The inadvertent typecasting of foreign professors under the name of diversity is detrimental to both the students and the faculty. Evaluating the individuality and abilities of the candidate should be the priority in the selection process, not their origin. The value of their diverse backgrounds and experience should be celebrated and coveted for; however, if an over-emphasis on such characteristics causes a drop in quality of the education for the members of KAIST, the process loses its luster and initiative.
Another crucial aspect to the discussion lies in a palpable issue; challenging communication between foreign professors and the students, faculty, and the administration due to both lingual and cultural barriers. At a primarily Korean university with an overwhelming majority of 95% Korean students, English-taught classes have been stated as an additional source of stress for many students already struggling with challenging courses. Even for foreign students, many whose primary language is not English, communication is a constant blockade. The problem intensifies especially when the professor is also not wholly comfortable with English, stilting the exchange even further.
But the loftiest wall to climb is not tangible. What may be the greatest strength of foreign professors is also their Achilles’ heel: cultural differences. Unlike foreign students, foreign professors do not have a representative organization; only modest assistance from the school in adapting to the Korean society. Accustoming to the inner workings of Korean universities, especially when working with the Korean staff.
Previous instances provide little assurance. Touted as a revolutionary move, electing a non-Korean President Robert B. Laughlin in 2006 entailed certain expectations of an innovative and global-minded thinking in the community. Yet, instead of what should have been a keystone for a new era of an open educational system, the two terms ended with an omen to an overly-competitive environment that led to a series of unfortunate outcomes in the steps of the succeeding president, Nam Pyo Suh. While relating such a case to the hiring of foreign professors may be a case of post hoc fallacy, we cannot ignore what has happened due to the lack of proper understanding on how to successfully integrate foreign cultures into Korean society.
All things considered, I do not oppose the increase in the number of foreign professors at our school. In fact, I want to support it. But we should first focus on directing our efforts to easing the interactions between the Korean students and faculty and the foreign professors that are already here. We must first secure the smooth integration of the multifarious knowledge we wish to foster. The task of globalization should be tackled with a viewpoint of long-term quality over the immediate increase in quantity if we really wished to solidify the institution’s international presence.