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Interview with President Oh Se-Jung

  • May 10, 2019
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President Oh is interviewing with Joongang Ilbo reporter Kim Jin-kook.
President Oh is interviewing with Joongang Ilbo reporter Kim Jin-kook.

Joongang Ilbo reporter Kim Jin-kook sat down with SNU President Oh Se-jung for an interview. The following is his account of their discussion.

Incoming SNU President Oh Se-Jung was inaugurated on February 1. He gave up his previous position in the National Assembly even before he was officially elected as President, showing how determined he is to bring change to SNU.

I met him in the President’s office on (April) 23. Throughout his educational career he was always the top-ranked student, but if you meet him in person, he is quite easygoing. People who know him say that he is an easy person to talk to. His experiences have shaped the way that he characterizes the SNU ideal.

Kim Jin-kook: At one point, there was talk of dissolving SNU.

Oh Se-Jung: The biggest problem is that SNU is at the top of the (university) hierarchy. They say that the hierarchical structure is damaging middle and high school education, and SNU, which is at the top of that structure, is the problem. But getting rid of SNU does not solve the problems associated with hierarchy. Looking back, I think SNU has failed to show to the world how helpful it has been to society. If we had shown that, then people would appreciate the fact that SNU is here.

(SNU) should identify the country’s problems and come up with solutions

Kim: How are you going to change things?

Oh: We need to recover our civic spirit. Every society needs a vanguard of elite professionals in order to develop. People like Alvin Toffler argue that in the future, since there are enough educational sources on the Internet, there will be no need for universities as places to assemble together to learn. But as society becomes more complex, we need professionals who can together solve the issues that this complexity raises. SNU needs to show that it has the capability of identifying and coming up with solutions to the country’s problems. The same goes for college entrance exams. Maintaining our position as number one in the rankings is not important. We need to think about how we should select our students and thereby bring back some normalcy to middle and high school education.

Kim: Are you planning to change the admissions process?

Oh: College admissions are subject to a lot of regulation by the Ministry of Education. Frequently changing the admissions process is something that is more advantageous for private education. We have to change it slowly, so that students are able to predict the changes. The plan is to establish an education council and come up with a system to select and develop students that every SNU member can agree upon.

SNU selects 20.4% of its students by CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test). The Ministry of Education wants SNU to increase that to 30%.

Oh: I can fully understand the sentiment of wanting to increase the CSAT to 30%. However, that by itself is not a solution. CSAT only tests one’s ability to solve multiple-choice questions, making it easy for students who are good at memorizing knowledge that is already laid out for them. That is not the talent needed in today’s world. We need to select creative students, who can think of things that other people cannot. I am doubtful as to whether the CSAT will be able to do that. That’s why we have been doing a lot more admissions based on more cumulative criteria (hak-jong), but the problem is that people don’t trust it. In the short run, I am planning to keep the process open, and enhance fairness and accountability by including a third-party observer on the admissions council.

Kim: Does that mean that you’re going to continue selecting students mainly by the cumulative criteria system?

Oh: The emphasis is more on the idea of reviewing the applicant’s middle and high school years. If the evaluation is based only on a single final result, it gives more advantage to applicants who started early or received more support on the way. That’s what the CSAT does, but the cumulative criteria system looks at how the applicant develops over a period of years. This is something that should not be disregarded.

Kim: Some say SNU graduates only think about themselves. What is your definition of the SNU ideal?

Oh:. As we discussed before - civic spirit. SNU graduates are likely to become leaders in society, and it is important that they exercise leadership that moves forward with others. In the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, thinking differently is more important than using information that is already known. Students should become the kind of people who ask questions, rather than just regurgitating what they already know. Every year the presidential award goes to the student with the highest GPA. I think it would be a good idea to also award people who took the road less traveled.

To foster this kind of talent, he plans on establishing a residential college system in the Gwanak Campus.

Oh: Before they enter university, SNU students rarely have a chance to collaborate. They are too busy competing. The type of talent we are trying to nurture is leadership that moves forward with others. A residential college system would foster more interaction and experiential learning among students and professors.

SNU is not as independent as they hoped they would be after corporatization, because the Ministry of Education imposes too much regulation. This is because SNU depends on funds from the government. For President Oh, this is a major obstacle.

Oh. Of course, I wish the ministry wouldn’t regulate (laughs). In order to stand up against those regulations, we need to have integrity. If we engage in things like plagiarism and sexual harassment, we’ll lose integrity. It is hard for us to exercise leadership as intellectuals if we lose our credibility.

Kim: Isn’t the fact that you’re depending on the government for financial support the reason for all this regulation?

Oh: Truth be told, it is hard to become completely autonomous without financial independence. I once went to the Weizmann Institute of Science, which is a foundational engineering research center in Israel. It’s run by the government, and when I asked them how much interference from the government they get, they replied that they were completely independent. This is because they receive only a third of their funding from the government [...]. When I told them that the SNU Research Institute of Basic Sciences receives 95 percent government funding, they said, “then of course you’re not autonomous!” Schools like Tsinghua and Stanford fund start-ups and earn money. That’s why I want to make an AI Valley in Gwanak.

He plans to establish an AI-based “Nakseongdae Valley” and sponsor talented entrepreneurs. The plan is to turn it into a world-class hub for tech startups in the next ten years.

Oh: This February, President Kim Jungsik of Daeduck Electronics donated 50 billion won. We’re going to start with that. This is not an issue that concerns only the engineering department. I’m going to establish an AI council with members from diverse fields, such as social science and the arts.

Kim: Is there space for it in Nakseongdae?

Oh: There are some old buildings in the research park that LG and SK used to use. We’ll start there... As for the AI Institute, there is some land available at SNU. There’s also some land owned by SNU in the Nakseongdae area, and we need permission from the city of Seoul to change it to AI valley. It will take 10, 20 years....

Developing Human Resources in the Field of Semiconductors at the Graduate level

Kim: There has been mention about a Department of Semiconductors at the undergraduate level.

Oh: Well, we were not the ones to propose the idea. The government came to us for help, recognizing that while the non-memory semiconductor field is important, it is currently lacking in human resources. Of course we are willing to provide assistance but we need to gather the opinions of our community first. We discussed having semiconductor studies at the undergraduate level, like they do in Sungkyunkwan University, but then questioned whether or not that would stay true to SNU’s identity as a research-oriented university. We thought that it might be more appropriate to keep semiconductor research at the graduate level. Furthermore, we wanted do more than just conduct research for Samsung Electronics: we wanted to develop an entire industry dedicated to semi-conductors and non-memory. We are currently working with both Samsung and Hynix.

Kim: There is some dissatisfaction among SNU professors who believe that due to certain regulations, the Nobel Prize will be awarded first to those from private universities.

Oh: Japan is going through a similar situation. Even though Tokyo University has more accomplished students, the number of Nobel Prize recipients is similar to that of Kyoto University. When I acted as Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, I received feedback from foreign professors who thought that we were “better than they expected” and that we were covering a lot, considering the small number of teaching staff in the department. The University of California, Berkeley has over 100 professors of physics, so they do everything. We, unfortunately, do not, and have to pick and choose what to focus on. If SNU does not focus on semi-conductors and non-memory, the chances that the field can survive in this country are small. Therefore, SNU must take on this challenge for the sake of the academic environment.

Kim: Do you have any plans to improve the research environment?

Oh: We have something called the 10-10 Project. The QS World Ranking takes into consideration around 50 fields of study, including physics and chemistry. Our goal is to rank in the top 10 in 10 of those fields, meaning that we will focus on those areas. When people think of SNU, there is not one particular field or professor that automatically comes to mind. SNU must achieve this name recognition in order to become a global institution. We plan to give support at the administrative level to make this happen.

Five years ago, Oh was not selected by the board of directors as SNU president though he came first in the election. I asked him if he had any plans to change the election system or the members of the board.

Oh: We currently have a committee working to improve the election system. We will finalize the changes before the end of this year and well before the next presidential candidates are revealed. The roles and duties of the board of directors, council members, and professors … there was not enough discussion on these issues in the process of corporatization, and it was difficult for members to reach a consensus. We also need to stop imposing taxes that were not required before when we were a national university.

Kim: Will there be a subway line going directly to SNU?

Oh: Going from SNU Station into the school campus is exhausting. It is also one of the biggest complaints of the students. SNU is in close proximity to the Gwanak district but provides no real advantages to residents because of its physical isolation, although students are making efforts such as the College of Education mentoring students in the Gwanak district. There are many cultural facilities within SNU, such as art and history museums, that should be more accessible to the residents of Gwanak. SNU should become a university that integrates with its society, rather than remaining an isolated ivory tower. Although our cultural facilities may not be in the greatest condition, if reconstructed, they have the potential to become concert halls comparable to the Seoul Arts Center. If we are successful in our Venture Valley Project, we can even help people find employment. Extending the subway to the campus will greatly help people access SNU.

From elementary, middle, and high school in Gyeonggi Province to graduating with honors at SNU in the Department of Physics

From his elementary school days, President Oh Se-Jung was always an honors student with top scores from Gyeonggi Middle School and High School, the national college-level entrance pre-examination, the SNU entrance examination, the Department of Physics at SNU at the bachelor level, and the Department of Physics at Stanford University at the Ph.D. level. After completing his term in 2008 as the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences, he became Chair of the National Research Council and President of the Institute for Basic Science. He then stepped away from research to become a member of the National Assembly.

President Oh expressed nostalgia for his research days, saying, “as a scholar, I get the most joy from doing research that I’m interested in and leaving something behind for others to remember.”

During President Oh’s generation, there was an increase in scholars who traveled abroad to pursue higher education. At this time the nation’s economy also developed, and there was much to do. Oh majored in particle accelerators. As this field became more important, research communities formed in different countries, leading to international conferences.

“If I had seniors who had paved a path, studying would have been my only task. I was alone, however, so I had to do it by myself. I thought that although it’s important to be able to do research on your own, it’s even more important to create good research environments for others.”

A leadership based on moving forward together with others was Oh’s takeaway from this entire experience. “The members of congress accepted me because they thought there needed to be a scientist among them.” Oh says that he learned a lot from his two years at Congress.

“I was involved in policy-making. I have seen a lot of how it works so I understand why seemingly reasonable policies are not implemented… through this I have also worked for the interests of the scientific community.”

Written by SNU English Editors: Chae Hyun Kim (michelle25@snu.ac.kr) &Yu Young Jin (coin1234@snu.ac.kr)
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, tlsmith@snu.ac.kr

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