Over two months have passed since President Sung-Chul Shin’s inauguration and many questions still remain as to how he intends to address the problems in the status quo while effectively implementing his vision for the next four years. On April 25, students gathered in Terman Hall at the Creative Learning Building (E11) to directly inquire President Shin about his solutions for the multifarious issues plaguing the community and his announced policies for the future of KAIST.
Hosted by the 31st KAIST Undergraduate Student Council, PUUM, and the 45th KAIST Graduate Student Association, Focus-on, the “Sung-Chul Shin 16th President of KAIST Student Conference” consisted of student representatives from both organizations on one panel and President Shin and Vice President O Ok Park on the other. Among the audience were student members, as well as KAIST faculty members and government officials to further aid in answering the inquiries.
The evening began with an hour-long session led by Focus-on presenting on the most important issues for graduate students, followed by common ground topics notable to both student bodies: Technical Research Personnel (TRP) system, human rights, and school governance. After a brief recess, the undergraduate representatives started the final session on eight core topics vital to the undergraduate population.
The first two subjects tackled the most topical controversies: the control of outsider influx during spring and transparency on the operation of school funds. Despite numerous suggestions from PUUM and the student body on resolving the outsider issue such as implementing parking fees via outsourcing to private companies, Vice President Park replied that the limited seasonality of the problem caused difficulties and the fee systems would be more harmful than beneficial for the students. He stated that the school will look further into working with the local government to reduce the disruption.
The more on-going and imperative crisis was the closed nature in the operation of school funds. After the Undergraduate Student Dormitory Council scandal had broken out in April, which revealed the possible misappropriation of dormitory funds for personal use by the council members, the issue sparked a much-needed conversation about student access to budget planning and information. Starting from 2017, previously separated accounting systems were unified under general accounting. In exchange, student-affiliated aspects from the budget that had been previously open to adjustments through discussions with student representatives became inaccessible. Additionally, student department presidents cannot review their department’s draft budgets or grants. President Shin promised to form a subcommittee of student representatives who will participate in student-related sections of general accounting and to encourage departments to allow draft budget access by student department presidents.
Another topic of contention was the start of the four-year non-major track ardently pursued by President Shin, which will be an available option starting from the Class of 2018. The student representatives emphasized the lack of the track’s results even from Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST), a bellwether of the non-major track program, as it has yet to produce any graduates due to its short history. They also raised concerns that after a drastic education reform in 2016 that created the current four-track system, another massive reform made without a properly planned curriculum will invoke confusion.
President Shin replied similarly to how he had promoted the curriculum previously: he reaffirmed major companies’ demands for individuals with a solid base of the fundamental sciences rather than narrow specialization in a single major. He stated that unlike that of DGIST, KAIST’s four-year non-major track will be fully optional, and the track will be similar to an additional major rather than a radical transformation of the school system. However, he agreed that he should have been more open and prompt about the announcement.
The age-old quest towards the globalization of KAIST addressed the institution’s aptness as a truly international-friendly campus and the ineffectiveness of the English curriculum. Though KAIST is advertised as a fully-integrated international school, many international students face educational disadvantages due to professors and students who are uncomfortable with English. Vice President Park stated that the newly established English Only Zone (EOZ), a region on campus dedicated to English-speaking only, and Global Campus, an English-only dorm where Korean and international students live together, consistently exposes students to English.
As for doubling the number of foreign students and faculty, President Shin proposed the hiring of professors from Asian universities, especially those in Southeast Asia such as the Indian Institute of Technology, who have studied abroad in English-speaking nations; hiring qualified professors who are also fluent in English would not only promote English-speaking but also attract foreign applicants from their respective countries. Even so, he replied that the task of globalization and autonomous — not forced — integration of English in everyday life requires more long-term infrastructure and resources than the current system allows for.
The essence of the roundtable was the final topic on the transparent and two-way communication between President Shin’s administration and the undergraduate student body. The proposed 3C leadership stands at the core of the president’s proposals, each C representing his values: change, communication, and care. Its purpose is to fortify trust, to foster pride, and to increase happiness and value within the community. President Shin emphasized that conversation between the faculty and the students was crucial in accomplishing such goals. However, while upholding dynamic communication between students and the management, he maintained his view that students are primarily learners who have not fully matured enough to participate in certain administrative aspects of school management.
However, PUUM asserted that students have the capacity and the responsibility to take volitional actions for issues that pertain directly to student welfare. Consistent discourse between the administration and the students had to be established “in the spirit of inter-member cooperation,” it argued, especially when disagreements arose between the two parties. The council suggested forming a student committee to that would partake in policy developments, which the president declined. Nevertheless, PUUM pursued an active student contribution in the university matters and President Shin expressed equal interest in cultivating exchange of ideas.
The conference ended with President Shin’s assurances to continue the discussions and more importantly, to act upon them. He agreed to release a public response to the questions asked during the panel. The school also promised a follow-up report on the corrective measures will be presented during the fall semester’s conference to evaluate the improvements in school management. Meanwhile, he called for more students to show interest and join in the conversation directly. While most issues are yet to be resolved, both sides hoped that the roundtable laid the groundwork for a responsive cooperation between students and the school in shaping the next four years.