World AffairsToday\'s Affairs
Polifessors Seeking to Build a Political LifeThe cozy relationship between politics and professors
Ha Jung-yun  |  apollon6@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2009.10.29  17:26:39
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   EARLIER THIS year, there was a striking scene at one of the nation's most prestigious Universities. Students were protesting against the return of Kim Yeon-soo (Prof., Dept. of Physical Education, Seoul National Univ.), who had previously filed for maternity leave. The truth is that she applied for maternity leave while she was running for a parliamentary seat on the ticket of the ruling Grand National Party. However, after losing the election, she was seeking to return to school. On behalf of the student council and professors' commission, she was asked to leave her job. Such a controversy illustrates what some critics call the phenomenon of "Polifessors."

 


What is a Polifessor?


   Many students are familiar with the often-used word, "polifessor.'' This term is a compound of politics and professor, and refers to those who neglect academic duties because they are more dedicated to building their political careers. While seeking to run in parliamentary elections or get positions in the government, they continue to maintain their professorship by taking a leave of absence. Many polifessors are condemned by opponents of this trend, because they can return to campus without difficulty, and this serves as insurance aginst the possibility of losing the election.
   As one can guess from the term's prevalence, it is not hard to find examples of professors who take long National leaves due to a political career. Assembly member Kim Hyo-seok was also a former professor in the Dept. of Business Admin. of Chung-Ang Univ.. Before resigning, he had already left academia for 12 years, 4 years as a government official and 8 years as an Assemblyman. Having won the Assembly seat again in April 2008, he was about to leave for 4 more years, which makes a total of 16 years of absence. There are many other professors who exploit a similar process. There are two professors at Yonsei Univ. who have now taken temporary leave as government officials. One is Kim Uoo-sang (Prof., Dept. of Political Science & Int'l Studies) who is now the Ambassador in Austrailia, and the other is Kim Jung-hyun (Prof., College of Chemical & Biomolecular Engin.), who is now working as a Second Vice-Minister at the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology.
   According to research done by the Seoul Daily and the Young Korean Academy (YKA) in February 2008, about 6% of the winners in the April election were professors. In addition, out of 101 professors who were nominated as candidates, only 10% of them were free from lecturing. "This number makes up a trivial proportion of the aggregate number of professors, but the potential possibility of violating the students'rights is still a problem," says Mun Ki-hwan (Prof., Dept. of Agricultural Economics, Chonnam National Univ.). On the other hand, 60% of these professors ran for candidate seats even though they had already opened courses for the upcoming semester. Right after the April election last year, JoongAng Daily asked 13 professors who had made it to the assembly, whether they would resign, only one of them said yes, while 12 of them simply turned down the suggestion, which means that the burdens from absence of a professor will be laid upon the students.

 

   
 
   
 

Professors, politicians-to-be


   Why do some professors, whose main job has already become politics, not give up their academic status? One reason is that these professors are free to participate in politics, unlike other government officials or teachers. According to the Educational Official Law, government officials, including teachers, are banned from participating in any political activity before giving up their position. In addition, Article 23 in the National Assembly Law mandates that, "When a teacher who is selected as a participant of a party is elected as an Assemblyman, his or her occupation is temporarily sustained during the term of office." Until now, this article has provided grounds of excuse for long-term leave professors, by which they can be assured of their position as a professor. 
   Universities, who often seek potential benefits by having a professor as an assembly member, have helped professors and promoted this trend. One professor described the school's reaction when he applied to quit his job. "The school authority actually recommended me to leave the job temporarily. It seems the school welcomes my special lectures held occasionally," says An Min-sik (Assembly Member of National Democratic Party), at an interview with the Seoul Daily. For Universities, it can be a great advantage to have a professor who works for the government or as an Assembly Member, because in that way they can help when their institution asks the government for support. "It is free lobbying. Professors at high-level offices of government provide a university with a direct connection to the government. This can make a university take the lead in preparing for the future," says Mun.  For example, in June, Seoul National Univ. (SNU) tried to enable professors to take temporary retirement for political roles. This regulation resulted in much criticism after its announcement, not only from students but also their colleague professors. Some professors have strongly demonstrated against it, publishing their opinions in the media. According to the Office of Academic Affairs of SNU, "Due to the controversies it produced, the regulation is now suspended, and the University will wait for further legislative process to give us a precedent."

 

   
 
   
 


The controversy over polifessors


   Of course, there are many advocates for professors undertaking public roles. Since the Chosun dynasty, due to the influence of Confucian ideology, many scholars have held dual positions. For example, all politicians, including cabinet ministers, and the king himself, were also prominent scholars and teachers. Likewise, Korea undoubtedly benefited from professors who helped government in international financial decision-making during the early years of industrialization. "These group of economists were called the School of Sogang. Professors' professionalism can give much help to the decision-making process," says Ha Bong-kyu (Prof., Dept. of Politics & Diplomacy, Pu-kyung National Univ.). Even nowadays, when our society is highly complicated and each field is more specialized than ever, professors' specialty in one area may maximize the effectiveness of government decisions. A widely known example is John Maynard Keynes, whose theories shaped the U.S. government's policies to exit the Great Depression in the 1930s. "Whereas an excessive devotion to politics may switch the means and goals, the effects should not be underestimated," adds Ha.
   On the other hand, students tell a different story. "There will be some positive aspects, for sure, but if a professor becomes political, he or she will be likely to be biased. That is why I object to professors being a politician, or vice versa," says Kim Ho-dong (Soph., Dept. of Law, SNU). If professors take leave and cancel the courses set up for new semesters, the victims are obviously the students. Since the choice of political candidates mostly occurs just before a new semester, some professors, while running for selection, have also committed to give lectures. Therefore, in the registration period, students line up for lectures only to receive notice that the course is cancelled, or will be taught by another person. "When a professor calls for a leave of absence, universities hire someone to fill the space," says Lee Ji-moon (The director of anti-corruption center, YKA). "Since they are short of professors, part-time instructors are hired to lecture for students," Lee adds. This results in low quality of lectures, as well as an increase in tuition fees. "It takes approximately 100 million for the school to hire a new faculty member. Due to this, Yonsei Univ. claims that hiring good-quality faculty is the major reason for increasing tuition fees," says Sung Chi-hoon (Sr., Dept. of Civil & Environ. Engin., Yonsei Univ.), the former student president of Yonsei Univ..  Therefore, a professor's taking years off work causes a result for which students cannot be given back what he or she expected.


For a better tomorrow


   Compared to other countries around the world, such participation in politics by professors is very unique. In the U.S., professors who take more than two years off their work have an obligation to quit. If they wish to recover their status, they have to pass a strict process of evaluation. President Barack Obama was also a professor of law at Chicago, but he gave up the position before he began running campaigns for the Senate. In Japan, where they emphasize one's main occupation, it has become a convention for a professor to resign his or her post before starting another career. 
   So what can be done to prevent the harmful side-effects of professors' political participation? There are three modified articles currently before the Assembly, which specify grounds upon which universities can ban their faculty from holding a duel position. "The Assembly Member Shim Jae-chul had submitted a modified article in the 17th National Assembly. The modification was not passed, though. Currently, there are three revised bills, which are yet to be submitted to the plenary session of the National Assembly," says Lee. If these articles are passed, they will work as a legal guarantee to reduce abuses by the professoriate.
   The students can also prevent and correct violation of their right to learn by participating directly in protesting against those professors who have brazenly maintained their academic posts. For instance, the Student Council of the College of Political Science and Economics in Korea Univ. has posted wall-posters on main buildings on campus, which protest against the return of two professors. "I hope through this act we will reach a conclusion. The political world, the economic world, and the teachers' world has now set to regulate those polifessors. Now, we students should not avoid those problems derived from them," says Sung.

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   It has long been a Korean tradition to respect scholars and teachers; however, nowadays, some professors' actions are making students unhappy. For students, professors are not only teachers of a particular subject but also role models whom they can emulate and respect. A minority of professors who visit the election camp without an invitation fail to provide such models. While a legal adjustment will do a good job to guard against such a moral catastrophe, it is still important to let them know that simply seeking political power is shameful, and they are doing so at the expense of students' rights.

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