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[Opinion] University President Elections

Posted October. 05, 2005 07:18,   


After its establishment in 1636, there have been 27 presidents at Harvard University, each with an average tenure of 13 years. Charles Eliot was president for a staggering 40 years from 1869 to 1909. There have only been six presidents in the 100 years since the 20th century. President Richard Levin of another prestigious university, Yale, has maintained his post for 13 years since taking office in 1993.

University presidents in the United States keep long tenures because there is a firmly established view that if a person’s ability is verified, the person should be allowed to work for over a decade to lead a university’s growth with a long-term perspective. It seems that this is true, considering that Harvard is one of the world’s top universities. In contrast, there have been 23 presidents with an average tenure of two and a half years at Seoul National University, which was established in 1946. It is difficult to hope for strong leadership in the university when the president changes so often.

Direct elections of university presidents have long been outdated systems in the United States and Europe. This is because the system was judged inappropriate in an era that demands a “CEO-type president”.

In contrast, Korean universities all introduced the direct election system after the democratization movement in June, 1987. As side effects such as the overheated fervor over the elections and the formation of factions emerged, most private universities abolished the system, but public universities still retain it. Most presidents at these universities are pushed around by members of the university community and step down after a short time. Poor governance plays a significant role in burying public universities under bureaucracy and lack of reform.

Even so, it was a great mistake of the government to put the National Election Commission in charge of public universities’ presidential elections. Not only does the constitution guarantee autonomy for universities, but also the government’s intervention in university management cannot be justified for any reason. As if that was not enough, the government has opened the way for civic groups to intervene, with the aim of monitoring any irregularities in the elections. Universities try to speak out but lose steam when the government displays a tough stance. This is because the government holds strong control over universities. The future looks bleak for universities in a reality where they are being ordered around by the election commission and civic groups.

Hong Chan-sik, Editorial Writer, chansik@donga.com