IN A span of an hour, Professor Lew Seok-choon (Prof., Dept. of Sociology) spoke the words that quickly propelled him to an unexpected national infamy. On September 19, during a Development Sociology class, Professor Lew gave a lecture in which he claimed that “comfort women are a subset of prostitutes.” Later, when challenged on his view during the questioning period, he replied to the female student by asking back, much to the surprise of the students, if she would “give it a try [to find out for herself].” While the professor later attempted to absolve himself by insisting that he was referring to research and not prostitution, those who were in class at the time instantly interpreted his remark as an offer to try out prostitution.
Initially, the student response to Professor Lew’s words were not immediately forthcoming, partially due to confusion created by lack of information. However, when Yonhap News published the contents of the leaked audio tape on the 21st, the situation changed drastically. With the rallying cries of the public behind them, student organizations acted swiftly; in the span of few days, many organizations would announce their condemnation of the professor.
On September 22, Promise (Department of Sociology Student Union) issued an official condemnation of Professor Lew. Under mounting pressure, Professor Lew, who had previously declined to comment on the issue, released a statement the following day. Defending himself, he asserted that “the comment was not suggesting that the student try prostitution” and that his words had been taken out of context. He also claimed that it was his “style... to be outspoken,” and therefore his comments cannot be subject to the discussion of “right or wrong.” The backlash against his unapologetic stance was immediate. That same day, the Yonsei General Student Union and Face (College of Social Sciences Student Union) both issued their official responses.
While Face focused mostly on demanding administrative action in response to the incident, Yonsei General Student Union directly condemned Professor Lew. Calling his explanation a “nonsensical justification,” the latter demanded an apology from the professor as well as his dismissal from school.
On the 25th, Face held a conference that resulted in the creation of a separate committee, the Yonsei College of Social Sciences Professor Lew Seok-choon Incident Student Task Force (hereafter referred to as “STF”), to better respond to the situation and ensure that no similar incidents would ever occur in the school. Despite such efforts, the escalation from the student body failed to elicit any form of apology from Professor Lew. In an interview conducted by Yonsei Chunchu, Professor Lew instead doubled down on his position, claiming that he “must have done something wrong to issue an apology, but [he] has nothing to apologize for.” Brushing aside accusations of sexual harassment as a misinterpretation, Professor Lew claimed that the current situation is an “infringement of academic freedom.”
Though the school is still in the process of launching an official inquiry, the criticisms levied against the professor by student organizations revolve around three concerns: accusations of sexual harassment, distortion of a historical narrative, and misuse of authority.
In response to Professor Lew’s claim that he has been misunderstood, the STF said that “the context preceding and following the statement,” makes it clear that he was indeed referring to prostitution and not “research” as he claimed. The organization also argued victims should determine what is and is not sexual harassment, and that the professor’s perspective on what constitutes sexual harassment was largely irrelevant. Criticizing him for his refusal to apologize, STF stated that he “should not remain silent, but should instead apologize for infringing upon students’ rights.” Promise was equally critical of the professor’s behavior, stating that “to verbally suggest trying prostitution categorically constitutes libel and sexual harassment.”
Student organizations also took notice of the biased nature of Professor Lew’s lecture. Yonsei General Student Union referred to his lecture as a “historical distortion” and “insults” to the sex slave victims. However, many others mostly refrained from outright criticism of Professor Lew’s divisive classroom topic. In light of Professor Lew’s preemptive remark about “infringement of academic freedom,” they instead chose to focus less on the content of his lecture but its delivery. This was in stark contrast to the general public which freely criticized Professor Lew for his presentation of the revisionist perspective; it is the current scholarly and public consensus that “comfort women” were sex slaves coerced into their predicament by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Collectively, the organizations pointed out that both the sexual harassment and the one-sided assertion of a contentious historical narrative were contingent on the fundamental issue of the professor’s misuse of authority. “School charter... stipulates that faculty must treat students who are enrolled in their class or under their guidance as their equals. Classrooms must be a place where professors and students can conduct open discussion with respect, [but] Professor Lew instead demonstrated a coercive attitude and cultivated a hostile class environment,” wrote Promise.
Similarly, the STF asked whether “the professor and students’ opinions [were] weighed equally during the class that day,” noting that the “professor’s authority prevented students from effectively challenging him.”
A history of misconduct
Criticisms regarding professors’ abuse of authority are not new in Yonsei. As recently as March 2017, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts was found to have sexually harassed a student in an informal setting outside class. When the story broke, the students blamed a culture of infallible authority and lack of school regulations.
A similar pattern is emerging this time as well. Promise was the most vocal regarding the need for school regulation, calling for the administration to recognize that “the issue is not limited just to the Department of Social Sciences. The school administration has not implemented any effective solutions to protect students’ educational rights despite the fact that this is not the first incident that has arisen from the power dynamics [between the students and the professor].”
Despite the collective protests from the student body, many are skeptical about their ability to achieve a meaningful change in the university’s educational policy. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, when asked about the possibility of serious administrative action, an anonymous student replied that she did not think such regulation was realistically possible considering the “Korean culture of deferring to authority.” Another anonymous student told the Annals that while there was some hope for change, the technical difficulties of implementing a school regulation regarding classroom conduct would be a “major obstacle.”
The current scandal has driven a heated conversation regarding the relationship between students and professors. It is likely that this debate will continue as Yonsei launches forward with its own investigation into the incident. In order to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, the prevailing opinion is that Yonsei must reexamine the relationship between students and professors in the classroom and provide a proper outlet for students to voice their concerns.