KAIST President Nam Pyo Suh, in an exclusive interview with The KAIST Herald, discusses his views on the tragic deaths of five members of the KAIST family last April, and gives considerable insight into the plans he has for KAIST to deal with all the recently raised problems. Despite having weathered a crisis where he was called on to resign by members of Korea's National Assembly, weeks after the height of the media coverage on KAIST, President Suh appeared confident as ever.What are your thoughts on the current situation at KAIST?
Well, that is a complicated question. There are people who do not know the details, assume and simplify the events to a single cause. All I can say is that it is more complex than it appears to be. Rather than simply reacting to the situation, we as a school are trying to understand the tragedies: what caused them and how to prevent them.
It is complicated because four students were in different situations due to their different high school backgrounds. Thus we gathered and analyzed all the information about the individual students in terms of how they were like before and after coming to KAIST. We can learn a lot from analysis, and as an institution we have to move forward and learn from what happened. By instituting measures we can prevent something like this from happening again. As an institution we must maintain integrity, honesty and ethics.
You mentioned on multiple occasions that a new set of school policies will be announced in May. What are the future plans you plan to implement?
2011 is KAIST’s 40th anniversary, and in commemoration, we initiated a new program called Vision 2025, which outlines what our university should become by the year 2025. Clearly our main objective is to become the best school for science and technology. It is true that what happened during the past four months engendered more thought on changing the school, but we were on this track already.
We want the school to develop new technologies that can address human needs through research. Take OLEV for example. We developed this idea under EEWS, a program with a mission to investigate problems related to “Energy, Environment, Water, and Sustainability,” and within two years of the creation of OLEV we started implementing it in Seoul. Thus the research and development process at KAIST will remain unchanged because it will allow for us to realize even more great ideas.
But we still have to change the KAIST education process. The way we are teaching today is often called “modern learning,” but this actually falls under 19th century paradigms, where the professor lectures for 50 minutes and then takes, leaving students wondering what the professor just said. This is not an effective instructing and learning model.
I believe that learning takes place best when initiated by the students, and developed the I-4 program, which stands for International, IT based, Independent and Integrated education. What we plan to do to fulfill this idea is to import quality lectures from all over the world. Throughout the world you only need about 20 lecturers for each course, and through the Internet, these lectures should be broadcasted for students of KAIST to receive. The students can listen to it multiple times and ask questions through the Internet to that lecturer. Then students can form groups to work on the assignment together. We will decide which students should be in each group, so that students are discouraged to mingle only with those of the same background. Through group projects, they will help each other and at the same time learn through discussions with a KAIST professor guiding them. Hopefully this will create a new culture among the students, and bring about a new paradigm in education.
What in your opinion should be the students’ role in KAIST?
First, I would like for students to participate in many of the research projects going on here, because they can learn a great deal through research, even at an undergraduate level. Also, students should get to know each other better and engage in group activities to develop a positive attitude about life and education. Smart people do not necessarily become leaders. Becoming a leader requires other qualities than just being intelligent. It’s those who work hard and have an attitude and creativity. Students should enjoy their lives here at KAIST and be able to look back and say that it was the best time of their lives. Be creative, have a dream and pursue it.
What about students actively taking part in the administration?
I am aware that many students wish to play a role in the school administration. I think that the students say that they want to be involved in the administration but actually mean that they want to make decisions the president should make. But someone who is not in my position cannot understand. It is just the way it is. Even departments do not know everything they have to worry about to maintain their competitiveness.
For the number of hours the students have to spend to understand how the administration works, the reward is very small. I spend hundreds of hours dealing with everything, and there are things that I do not want to do but are part of my responsibility. 70% of the time, people have to do things they do not want. I don’t know what that ratio is or should be for me, but I do it for KAIST.
If students want to be involved, then they should volunteer for jobs around campus. I worked as a janitor when I was at MIT. How many students want to do that at KAIST? These tasks are also a part of administration work. I understand that students have good intentions in wanting to help the administration but in reality it is very difficult because there are tasks that only those assigned to them can do.
International students were largely overlooked in the debate over school reform. Would you like to say anything to them?
The reason for having international students is to enhance the quality of the school as a whole, allow students to learn multinational identities of science and give students opportunities to make friends who have different backgrounds. But often they are excluded from activities and during the past months they have been really excluded. Their percentage is so small that people sometimes unintentionally forget about their presence.
I think that the solution is to increase the number of international students we accept, and try our best to provide them with what they need even if we do not receive any government support for admitting them. It is going to take a much greater commitment on the administration’s part. Also, it is important that that Korean and international students befriend each other instead of mingling within their respective groups. It is not easy but we must overcome this problem.
Why do you think we need a vision for KAIST?
I get many letters from KAIST alumni, and many are very supportive of some of the policies we introduced in the past. Most of them write about how being a KAIST student felt special because KAIST was unique compared to other universities in Korea. KAIST professors received about three times more than the average professor’s salary. We had a big impact on other schools in that many schools established graduate schools after we did, and top universities, both private and public, all improved a great deal in quality.
The problem is, now that these universities have caught up with us, the difference between KAIST and other schools is narrow. If no transformation takes place at this stage, then KAIST will just be another university in Korea. To maintain our distinguished position and to continue to produce future scientists, we have to do a lot more than what we have been doing since our foundation.
We have the infrastructure to do so, but we cannot claim that we are better than other universities such as MIT because we did not live up to our capabilities. We are still behind a number of universities, including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in rankings. I am not sure what rankings mean in the end, but nevertheless we are behind.
All the questions raised to me so far have been minor points. We give scholarships to everyone and only reduce the amount according to the GPAs. We also conduct our courses in English. Some say that this method of education works only in the U.S. and not in Korea. I do not believe that. I taught in many countries and that is not the issue. You have to believe in that specific student and treat them with integrity. But if we did everything correctly, why are we behind? Not everything was done correctly, so discussion should not be on trivial matters like these.
It is also important to take into account the opinions outside of KAIST. It costs $70,000 for a single student to receive a KAIST education and the taxpayers are paying for it. We have to make sure that taxpayers believe in us and continue to support us. It is dangerous for us that taxpayers are saying they don’t want to support us anymore because they think we’re the same as any other national university in Korea. They need to believe that their investment will pay off. This is an important issue for us because the consequences of losing taxpayer support will be immense.
Our goal as an institution is to be global, broad and purposeful. If we have that goal in mind and do what we need to do, we’ll become one of the best universities. That’s our philosophy and I believe in it. It can be done, and that’s why I’m here. There are many people who overcome adversity with creativity, and I am confident that our students are capable of this.