IN THE democratic Korea, monarchy resides where the emperor has the absolute power over its citizens. In Korean universities, where scholars should be freely exploring their academic passions, many graduate students are muted, and are often subjected to abusive power. For decades, graduate students had to bear through their professors’ mistreatments as well as abuse of power in order to graduate and continue their career in academia. The term gap-jil is used to demonstrate the professor’s abuse of power upon students, and only recently did this issue begin to gain more attention.
On July 13, a group of Seoul National University (SNU) graduate students led a demonstration demanding fair treatment. The demonstration was ignited when an abusive sociology professor H received only 3 months of suspension. The professor had verbally abused his students, ordered them to help out with personal issues, and embezzled part of their payments. Even though many students were victims, they were reluctant to speak up because the professor had control over their graduation and career afterwards. Perhaps, it is now time to rethink the graduate program and establish a healthy environment in which students can receive fair treatment.
Gap-jil, Sad Reality of the Grad Students
According to an article from Nocut News, professor H continuously harassed his students both verbally and sexually since 2012. When the SNU Human Rights Center conducted an inspection on the issue, it found out that the professor had told many insults such as: “You should be beaten up,” and “There is a saying that some women cannot live without men and I think it is directly referring to you.” He also made students clean out the refrigerator in his house, pick up his milk delivery while he was on a trip, and wipe the molded wall at his home.
Graduate students from Korea University (KU), a prestigious university in Korea, also claimed that they have experienced gap-jil of the professors. JTBC Newsroom reported that a KU professor withdrew part of the government payroll for the graduate students and deposited it to his own account. The students revealed recordings of the professor saying: “I think A is the prettiest. She should switch seats,” “I should make A break up with her boyfriend,” and “Do you honestly think I’d want someone like you, who don’t even know these materials, to graduate?”
After reading media coverages on gap-jil problem in graduate schools, The Yonsei Annals contacted several students to interview them for first-hand accounts. Nonetheless, most of them declined. Two brave students, C from KAIST and D from Yonsei, volunteered, although they asked not to reveal their names and majors. Since both of them are in science and engineering fields, they may have had different experience compared to students in other subject areas. Nonetheless, they provided valuable accounts that elaborated on the current situation in graduate programs.
When asked about the reality of what is shown on media, both C and D said that it depends on each professor’s lab. Like other universities outside of Korea, the Korean graduate program is run as an apprentice system. In other words, a professor accepts several students to study and work as part of his or her lab or research group. When the students complete their thesis, the professor decides whether they can graduate under the examination of thesis. A professor will not let a student graduate when he or she is not satisfied. Because each field in the academia is quite exclusive, they must maintain a good relationship with their professor. This means that the professor has a complete control over the students’ academic careers within and out of school.
Though both interviewees said that they work with nice professors who respect them, they agreed that some labs have repressive atmosphere. Knowing that they have absolute power within their labs, some professors consider the graduate students as people whom they can treat however they want. Thus, students must bear abusive languages and receive unfair and unjust treatments.
With so much of their future depending on their professors, many students are reluctant to speak up for themselves. “Whenever I gather with my friends from grad school, I hear stories,” said C. “In KAIST, a professor embezzled research funds, but he forced his student to take the blame.” The student had to falsely confess, because he needed the professor’s approval to graduate. “But no one would ever dare to talk about these problems. Students have so much to lose—they just have to suck it up and wait till they get the diploma,” claimed C.
The situation is not so much different in Yonsei University. “When I was in high school, I went for a tour in a graduate school lab. A graduate student made a mistake with the schedule and the tour got delayed, and the professor started swearing at him. His language was beyond appropriate and he even tried to hit the student,” said D. “The student did not say a word and took it all.”
Under such repressive circumstances, graduate students are slowly deteriorating inside, while being neglected by the society. *Chosun Ilbo* reported that 1 out of 4 SNU graduate students feel the urge to commit suicide, which is ten times higher than the average rate among people in their twenties. Furthermore, 64.2% answered that they feel depressed. “I hear about graduate students who have committed suicide, although most of these cases are not publicized,” said D. “I think it’s crucial for us to establish a healthy environment for the students, so that they know there are other choices than the extreme one.” Last year, Daejeon Ilbo stated that 4 out of 5 students who have committed suicide in KAIST are graduate students.
Why is this problem ongoing?
Many people point out to the exclusive system as the core cause of the gap-jil problem. With the professors having so much power over the students’ future, they are the true emperors within the labs and academia. Behind the closed doors of the graduate school labs, students must follow the professors’ orders—even the most ridiculous ones.
The closed doors also apply to the student community; because the labs are separated from each other, students rarely get a chance to communicate with other students and share their experiences. “I have a group of friends in the graduate program, so we get together and talk about how difficult our lives are. But I rarely get to meet people from other labs,” said D. “Plus, students won’t dare to share their experiences. In such a small, exclusive society, especially in science and engineering fields, when a story gets out, people will automatically know who that person is. That’s why I was a bit worried about having an interview myself.”
Although students need a safety net to support them when they are in an unjust situation, the universities’ current regulation system does not provide much help. According to Kang Tae-kyung (Former President, Graduate Student Union, Korea University), the current laws administer insufficient disciplinary system that will prevent professors’ gap-jil. In Korea, universities are subjected to two sets of legal standards that specify disciplinary actions for the professors. National universities refer to the Educations Officials Act, and private universities refer to the Private School Act. These laws, which originally intended to ensure the universities’ independence and autonomy, aggravate the gap-jil problem.
As can be seen in the SNU case in which the abusive professor only got 3 months of suspension, the disciplinary action taken towards the professors do not reflect the severity of the problem. Professors are rarely dismissed even if they have seriously abused their students. Also, there is a possibility that the professor may retaliate when he comes back to the office after his suspension period.
“Universities are especially careful about taking disciplinary action towards the professors because they can actually appeal to the upper branch in the government,” said Kang. When a professor receives punishment from the university, he or she can appeal to the Appeal Commission for Teachers. Once the commission accepts the appeal and decides that the punishment had been inappropriate, the university will be penalized and must compensate for the salary of the professor whom had been suspended. Therefore, the university is reluctant to severely punish the professors. Kang said, “While it’s important to ensure the professors’ freedom of expression and academic pursuit, we need an additional means to prevent them from abusing the students’ rights.”
Moreover, the time limitation circumscribed by the law blocks students from reporting their cases. The current law specifies that the students cannot report problems after their graduation. Also, sexual harassment and embezzlement cases have to be reported within 5 years after their occurrences. Assaults and other unfair treatments are given 3 years to be reported. Considering that it takes 6 years on average to complete the doctoral program in science and engineering fields, and possibly longer in humanities, it is impossible for the students to publicize.
The lack of system or institution for students is also a big problem. Unlike the General Student Council for undergraduate students, that of graduate school is not as active since most of the students are busy studying and researching. “It’s just too much opportunity cost for the students in the student council,” D said. Also, C pointed out that “realistically speaking, there is almost no organization on which students can rely. It’s absolutely urgent to establish a system that supports graduate students.”
Sheer line between an employee and a student
Another confusion that needs to be cleaned up is the ambiguous status of the graduate students. While they are students who participate in the universities’ programs, they also work for the school. Nonetheless, individual students have different standards in regards to the line between their responsibilities as students and workers.
For example, a graduate student from SNU reported his professor for making the student scan over 80,000 pages of document. But the SNU Human Rights Center decided that this case is not an exploitation since it is the student’s duty to help the professor prepare for the class. Like this case, the borderline between the professor’s gap-jil and the student’s duty is very vague.
In particular, students in engineering schools participate in projects commissioned by private companies. Since revenues made from these projects take up significant part of the school’s budget, some students claim that they need to be paid accordingly to the hours they spend. “Although graduate students work on these projects, they should be considered as workers in this aspect,” said the former president of KU’s Graduate Student Union. “They need a proper compensation to the work they contribute to these projects.” According to a report by the Presidential Committee on Young Generation in 2014, over half of graduate students recognize themselves as both student and worker, although they feel like they truly belong to neither.
On the other hand, C from KAIST said, “I think projects should be considered as part of the graduate studies. If students wanted to be paid for the work, they should have gotten a job in a company. However, they will be getting a diploma as a compensation for the work, and they get to have work experience as well. I don’t think it’s such a bad deal.” Thus, there are disagreements within the graduate student body on the labor issue. This issue should be resolved in order to ensure basic rights for the students.
Then what should we consider as gap-jil?
During the interview with Annals, Kim Jong-kyung (President, Graduate Student Union, Korea University) stated that it is very difficult to distinguish between exploitation and students’ duty. Kim stated that the borderline between the professor’s gap-jil and the student’s duty should be based on common sense. If most people consider the case to have overstepped the bounds, then it should be regarded as a gap-jil. They also think that if the professor uses student’s labor in private matter, it is gap-jil.
What can be done?
It is of utmost importance to start the conversation. As most of the gap-jil is done under cover and most students are reluctant to talk about it, it is difficult to pinpoint specific issues and do something about them. We need to establish a platform in which students feel comfortable enough to share their stories.
The webtoon project done by Korea University’s Graduate Student Union is the epitome of such effort to get people talking. With its first episode published online in 2016, The Portrait of Sad Graduate Students (Seul peun Dae hak won saeng Dul ui Cho sang) depicts the reality and problem of gap-jil by introducing stories that were actually sent in by the students. “We thought it was important to provide a fun and safe means for the graduate students to talk about their lives and circulate them among the wide range of readers,” said the former president Kang. “Webtoon was the best format because it’s entertaining and easy to read.” The council received stories from the students via internet and created the webtoon based on them.
The project was a big success. “I think students felt more comfortable because it was anonymous. We changed the details to ensure the students’ anonymity, because if the students’ identities are revealed, they may have negative consequences,” the former president said.
In fact, such outlet to have the students’ voices heard is absolutely needed right now. Universities must provide adequate counseling services for the graduate students, so that they can talk about their problems and hardships without worrying about revealing their identities to the public. “Although there is counseling service available within the university, I get the feeling that these services focus on undergraduate students,” said D. “Many graduate students feel like they have nowhere to go when they are facing problems.”
Another action that should be done is to establish a firm legal protection for the graduate students. According to Daily UNN, Congressman Noh Woong-rae proposed an amendment to the existing law for universities’ information disclosure. If the amendment passes, universities will be required to announce the number of teaching assistants, their monthly pay, the job requirements, working hours, and job contract forms. This will help to prevent students from receiving paychecks less than the minimum wage as well as to ensure a reasonable working environment for the teaching assistants.
Furthermore, graduate student councils must step up to ensure that the students’ rights are protected. Some universities including Yonsei, Ehwa, and KAIST have declared the University Bill of Graduate Student Rights, also called Dae hak won saeng Kwon li jang jeon. A symbolic gesture to demonstrate urgency of the matter, the bill lists various rights that must be ensured for the graduate students. These include: right to have their privacy protected, right to reject unfair treatment, and right to have their studies respected.
Making a harmonious campus life
“I think the lab environment becomes more dictatorial if the professor is the sole person in power to decide the students’ fate,” C said. “If the professors realize that they will be sufficiently penalized for gap-jil, they won’t cross the line.” In order to promote a democratic and harmonious campus life, we cannot have any emperor residing on campus.
The atmosphere and the system need to change, and this can only be done through collaboration among universities, the government, and the students. Perhaps, the true arena of knowledge and learning can be only achieved when the emperor finally steps down from his throne.