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Professors Caught in the Machine
Stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-Suk announces his resignation after admitting misconduct. (Photo courtesy of Lee Jin-Man/AP via Wikipedia)

Professors Caught in the Machine

South Korean universities are losing their ideals, says Kang Nae-hui.

More of us in South Korea are turning into mere university employees. Even critical intellectuals are trapped in this situation.

Professor Namhee Lee of UCLA's Asian Languages and Cultures Department describes Kang Nae-hui as member of an endangered species: the South Korean public intellectual.

Kang, a professor at Chung-Ang University in South Korea and visiting fellow at the Cornell University Society for the Humanities, talked about the evolving role of South Korea's scholars at a Jan. 31 event sponsored by the UCLA Center for Korean Studies. South Korean universities are getting physically bigger, he said, and professors are being pressured to match that superficial growth with more research and better results. From the early 1990s, he said, South Korean universities began adopting capitalist strategies, treating students as customers and professors as providers of expertise. It was in this atmosphere that the Hwang Woo-Suk stem-cell research scandal evolved.

The now infamous research project at Seoul National University in which Hwang claimed to have cloned embryonic stem cells made the biomedical scientist something of a national hero. Then, in November 2005, a major broadcasting company in South Korea, MBC, reported that Hwang had falsified his research. He was found to have fabricated all 11 stem cell lines and to have coerced research assistants into donating eggs. "I was blinded by work and my drive for achievement," Hwang said in a press conference, but maintained that his work had been sabotaged.

To observers such as Kang and Lee, Hwang's deceptions were indicative of the pressures scholars in South Korea face to produce knowledge. In an interview, Lee pointed out the irony that Korean universities tend to look to America for models. Professors in the United States are also pressured to produce in universities that increasingly commodify education, Lee said.

"While the changes are similar in nature, the rapid pace of change in South Korea makes it all the more dramatic," said Lee, who grew up in South Korea and teaches modern Korean history.

Legislation enacted in 1995 encouraged competition between universities and between professors, Kang said. The educational reform law allowed students to freely choose their departments of study, regardless of what discipline they had chosen at the time of their entrance exams. The changes led to dropping enrollments in some departments and what Kang called a "crisis of the humanities" that put professors in the position of wooing students. All in all, the reforms "weakened the old disciplinary spirit, diversified skills and knowledge to be taught and learned, and emphasized the practicality of knowledge," Kang said.

"Students are panicked if they cannot get a job after graduation," Kang said. These fears are disintegrating the ideals of higher education and killing off cultural studies.

In 1998, the government implemented the Brain Korea 21 program, or BK 21. Its motto was telling: "More money for better programs." Those better programs were largely in the fields of biomedical and genetic engineering, including Hwang's research program. To earn a piece of the 200 billion won fund ($200 million), universities began to focus on advanced engineering, leaving social sciences and the humanities by the wayside.

While the increase of spending on research was a positive development, Kang said, "pressures also intensified on academics to produce better results." He charges that the pressure led to fabrications and "meaningless research projects" created for the sake of getting funding for faculty members' home universities.

"More of us in South Korea are turning into mere university employees," he lamented. "Even critical intellectuals are trapped in this situation."

In 2001, Kang (left) and others formed a Professors' Trade Union to fight for job security and better conditions. Two thousand joined, "a shamefully small number considering that college professors now outnumber 60,000."

Gains made worldwide by capitalism and neoliberal trade policies cannot but have consequences for scholars, Kang argued.

"The state is a very enigmatic being." Professors, he said, "have to be critical of this new liberal and capitalist state but still should function as part of the public sphere."