Editor' s Note
Have you heard a professor tell you about his own life as a Yonseian in the middle of the lecture? If you have, you might also have realized how many Yonsei graduates have come back to their alma mater to become professors. Many students might think it natural that such professors are common and even conducive to university interests, considering their greater attachment to and awareness of the school. However, there are great underlying problems of this so-called faculty inbreeding. This month, The Yonsei Annals delves into the deeply-rooted custom of faculty inbreeding and its implications.
- Kim Hee-jin, Editor of the Campus Reporting Div.
THE EYES and ears of students are closely following the professor's gestures and voice in a class full of tension. They are taking Games Theory and Applications with Prof. Eric S. Maskin, one of the three winners of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics. Surprisingly, taking lectures with Nobel Prize winners is no longer the sole prerogative of Ivy League students. This semester, Yonseians are already attending special lectures or regular courses taught by Nobel laureates. Only several years ago, it was most common for Yonseians to take lectures with professors who graduated from Yonsei Univ.. As the school endeavors to root out "faculty inbreeding," however, Yonseians are being provided with a greater chance to enroll in courses taught by professors with diverse academic backgrounds.
The definition and realities of faculty inbreeding
Applicants for professorship fall into one of the two categories. One is a group of applicants who obtained a degree, especially their undergraduate degree, at the recruiting university. The other is a group of applicants who graduated from other universities in Korea or foreign countries. In the faculty recruitment process, giving preferential treatment to the former group is referred to as "faculty inbreeding." In other words, universities are hiring former students as new professors. Objective criteria like academic achievements or lecturing abilities are not taken into full account if faculty inbreeding pervades in a university.
Such custom has been a pending problem of Korean universities for the past few decades. Among the overall population of full-time faculty at four-year colleges in Korea, the percentage of professors teaching at the school they graduated from was 23% as of Sept. 1, 2008. The statistics are even worse in the nation's top private and public universities. Most professors (89.3%) of Seoul National Univ. (SNU) are graduates from SNU. In case of Yonsei Univ. and Korea Univ., the rates are 65% and 61% respectively. Considering that only 15% of Harvard Univ. professors received their college diplomas from Harvard, the figures of Korean universities are disappointing.
The problems of faculty inbreeding
A university is referred to as a hall of learning and wisdom. Advancement of knowledge is accompanied with conflicts between academic perspectives, and theories that better explain a certain phenomenon survive in the conflict. If a faculty is composed of professors who maintained a junior-senior relationship during university, it is difficult to expect an atmosphere with active academic criticism to be created based on the following two reasons.
First, a newly employed professor who was once a student of the current professor can feel uncomfortable about criticizing academic opinions of senior professors, especially in Korean culture based on Confucianism. According to Confucianist ideas, pupils should always obey their masters, since a vertical relationship exists between them. Chai Hyo-jeong (Secretary-general, Antihakbul*) says, "In a university where faculty inbreeding is flourishing, professors cannot form relationships on an equal footing, by which they can have expert-to-expert discussions. It may be difficult for junior professors to argue against senior professors until he or she becomes a senior in the faculty society." The other reason of academic regression induced by faculty inbreeding is the difficulty of junior professors to escape the academic perspective of their seniors who taught them in the past. Not only the level and frequency of criticism but the motivation for further research also falls.
Aside from such academic degradation, faculty inbreeding causes the alignment of professors with similar interests. Their partisanship is often pointed out as the hotbed of dishonorable events in Korean universities. In 2003, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology detected a local university which entrusted employment to a person acquainted with one of the candidates for professorship. As such, since faculty inbreeding means that unfair privileges are provided based on school connections; it seriously hinders the progress of university and should be reduced for Korean universities to become globally competent.
Breaking away from the old custom
With the start of the 2009 Fall Semester, Yonsei Univ. newly appointed 34 full-time faculty members who will be giving lectures at our school for two to three years, except for Prof. Maskin who is here only for a year. Among the new faculty members, only 12 (35%) received their bachelor's degrees from Yonsei Univ.. The other 22 new professors (65%) are from 17 other universities including Havard Univ., SNU, and Korea Univ.. The rate of 65% is remarkable when compared to that of SNU (20%) and Korea Univ. (41%). In early 2000, the figures were below 30%, but the proportion of non-Yonsei graduates among new professors has remained over 50% every semester for the last three years. Such statistical figures show that Yonsei Univ. has been attempting to bring change to its faculty recruitment process in recent years, taking the lead in curing the ailment of faulty inbreeding in Korean universities.
Behind the aggressive measures to change hiring policies were several incentives. Yonsei Univ.'s "inbound globalization" efforts through the establishment of Underwood International College (UIC) and the Songdo Global Academic Complex (GAC) led to the employment of a greater number of foreign professors. As Graph 1 indicates, the proportion of foreign professors among the newly employed professors has been increasing over the last four semesters, from 25.7% to 44.1%. In addition, Yonsei Vision 2020*, which specifies the future strategy of Yonsei Univ., states that it will regard candidates' global research capability as the most important factor when hiring new professors. It also promises the invitation of great scholars for a leap in research capability. With the Nobel laureate Eric Maskin lecturing on campus this semester, Yonsei Univ. seems to be getting closer to its goals.
The sluggish research atmosphere and its side effects were also decisive factors that urged Yonsei Univ. to make a progressive change. As some academic fields in which Yonsei Univ. had a comparative advantage were challenged by competing universities, professors keenly felt the need to revitalize the research atmosphere. Jeong Jinook (Dean, School of Economics) says, "About ten years ago, it was almost impossible to become a professor in Yonsei Univ. if he or she had not graduated from Yonsei Univ.. After receiving dissatisfactory results in university evaluation at the end of 2003, our professors felt a sense of crisis. We established a screening committee in order to judge the candidates thoroughly based on expertise, achievements, and potential.
Lastly, the public's severe criticism on faculty inbreeding put great pressure on the government to limit such unfair practices. According to the current Public Educational Official Appointment Regulations, which was revised in 2005, universities should employ more than one third of its new professors from those who hold degrees from other schools. The government added this clause with the intention to clarify the opaque and unreasonable employment process prevalent in the academic society based on school connections and to guarantee the diversity in academia.
The result of the new influx of professors in Yonsei Univ.
As each college started to hire new professors based on academic achievement instead of their alma mater, the background of faculty became naturally diverse. Moreover, research activities were reinvigorated, as diverse perspectives collided with each other through discussion. There were some other positive effects felt in the faculty society and also in lecture rooms.
Jeong Jinook (Dean, School of Economics)
Not long since the new system was introduced, many professors doubted whether non-Yonsei professors would do their best in Yonsei Univ. Over time, this has proved to be nothing but a prejudice and the faculty society began to resemble prestigious universities in the United States, with a more academic atmosphere. Last semester, the School of Economics held a total of 47 faculty seminars, which amounts to an average of three times a week. In the meantime, it is still rare for some universities to hold seminars more than once a week.
(2nd Sem., the Graduate School of Business)
Students taking lectures from diverse professors also feel the positive change in our school. In my Financial Regulation class, which is a team-teaching course, professors who graduated from not only our school, but also SNU and foreign universities give us lectures. I now learn how to approach the same problem in diverse ways, which was not possible in the past.
(Prof., School of Electrical Engineering & Electronics)
I graduated from Korea Univ. and started lecturing in Yonsei Univ. since 2005. I do not think that I have been disadvantaged by the fact that I am not a Yonsei graduate, and there is no discrimination among professors. My experience at an electronics company and thesis evaluation seems to have substantially contributed to my employment. According to my experience, the controversy over faculty inbreeding during the recruitment process seems to have come to an end in Yonsei Univ..
The ideal future in recruiting professors
Although Korean universities are gradually getting rid of their past corrupt practices, they still have a long way to go considering the top universities' high percentage of professors teaching at their alma mater. (SNU: 89.3%, Yonsei Univ.: 65%, Korea Univ.: 61%) Each university should realize that faculty inbreeding suppresses creativity in research and impedes university competitiveness. Yeon duk-won (Researcher, Korea Higher Education Research Institute) says, "Besides private universities, some colleges and local national universities also have high proportions of alumni or alumnae professors. A more detailed evaluation criteria and recruiting process are necessary in Korean universities to overcome the faculty inbreeding problem."
Meanwhile, there is another side to the recent news report about Yonsei Univ.'s fall recruitment that needs to be revealed, because the figure of 65% includes foreign professors who were hired for the purpose of globalizing Yonsei. Since the intention of hiring a greater number of foreign professors is to increase the number of lectures taught in English, it is too early to jump to the naive conclusion that every college is now free from the deeply rooted problem of faculty inbreeding. An influx of foreign professors with great academic achievements in their fields just proves that the globalization of Yonsei Univ. is proceeding in the right direction. When foreign professors increase to some degree, the old custom has a great possibility to relapse at anytime if the school authorities are unaware of the seriousness of faculty inbreeding. Lee Hun-mook (Chief, Office of Academic Affairs) says, "Although some recent statistical data are interpreted as evidence of Yonsei Univ.'s effort to eliminate faculty inbreeding, the school authorities have no specific strategies or a fixed ratio for external professors."
The current official appointment regulation urges universities not to employ more than two thirds of the new professors who graduated from the recruiting university. However, it should have more specific disciplinary measures; otherwise, the current clause lacks enforcement power. Last year, SNU attempted to weaken the regulation by changing the academic requirement for non-SNU graduates from bachelor's degree to doctor's degree. Such example shows that civic groups concerned with university education should keep monitoring Korean universities in order to prevent the vicious cycle of faculty inbreeding.
Furthermore, the government should improve the overall research environment in Korean universities in order to encourage top university graduates to willingly teach at local universities. In today's reality where most governmental financial support is concentrated in universities around Seoul, professors-to-be cannot be motivated to work at local universities. More and more candidates who graduated from universities in Seoul will avoid working for other universities and be tempted to return to their alma mater. Yeon says, "The problems related with faculty inbreeding could be relieved only when local universities are provided with the same research environment as Seoul." To guarantee a better research environment outside of Seoul, the concept of balanced development should be applied to educational policies as well.
*Antihakbul: A Korean educational civic group that holds regular public lectures and forums in opposition to discrimination based on one's academic background.
*Yonsei Vision 2020: To commemorate its 120th anniversary, Yonsei Univ. declared the "Yonsei Vision 2020: Yonsei, the First and the Best" in 2005 to rise beyond the status of Korea's leading university and become a world premier university.
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Last August, Yonsei Univ. jumped 38 steps from last year and ranked 200th in the world according to the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is still hard to accept that the nation's leading university ranks only 200th in the world. Among many factors that cause Korean universities' incompetence, faculty inbreeding has been pointed out as the main cause that weakens their global competiveness by impeding research capability. Since academic accomplishment is a crucial element in a university's competitiveness, the recent changes in the professor recruitment process can be a great chance for us to rise as a leading university in the world. Right now, Yonsei Univ. is standing at the crossroads of whether to take on the challenge of eradicating its old custom or to let it burgeon again.