South Korea Brings in Foreign Professors by the Thousands, but Is It Ready for Them?

Jean Chung

Richard Bonfiglio (left) teaches Victorian literature and Donald Bellomy teaches history at Sogang U. in South Korea. The university is at the vanguard of a national push to internationalize. It plans to recruit 60 new foreign professors over the next four years.
February 27, 2011

Five years ago, Hijoo Son would have landed her first academic job in the United States. But with colleges across the country slashing hiring budgets, she opted for booming South Korea instead.

"It took a bit of persuading for my family to come," says Ms. Son, who was born in South Korea but came to the United States at age 5, earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles, and now teaches history at Seoul's Sogang University. "A big push factor was the horrible economy in the U.S. There were no jobs there."

South Korea is happy to pick up the hiring slack. Sogang is one of dozens of universities here trying to increase the number of foreign faculty members, and many are now offering compensation packages comparable with those of better American institutions.

As a tenure-track assistant professor, Ms. Son has a salary similar to what she would earn at some colleges in the United States ($43,000 to $50,000 a year), and she is eligible to join South Korea's universal health-care system. "A big plus with a child," she says.

Although only 4,957, or about 7 percent, of South Korea's 77,697 full-time faculty members are foreign, the figure is up threefold in less than a decade, according to the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology. That already puts it well ahead of neighboring Japan's 5 percent (out of 353,000 full-time professors), despite a much longer history of foreign hires there.

Most observers expect the South Korean figure to grow sharply in the coming decade as the country's universities climb out of an academic ghetto that has kept them largely isolated from the global job market.

Sogang, a private liberal-arts college set up by Jesuits from Wisconsin, is at the vanguard of this burgeoning internationalization. It plans to recruit 60 new foreign professors over the next four years, as it strives to push English-language teaching from 20 percent of its classes to 50 percent.

Jong-wook Lee, president of Sogang, admits that foreign recruitment starts from a very low base: Just nine out of the university's 374 current full-time instructors are non-Korean. "We just couldn't afford to hire them before," he says. "But there are no differences in salaries now, and we get applications from all over the world."

Shortcut to Modernization

Foreign professors in South Korea were once little more than exotic symbols of an aspiring globalization. Most were contract teachers who returned home after a few years, leaving little lasting mark on the higher-education system.

But as the economy matures, colleges increasingly see foreign faculty and language programs as shortcuts to modernization, and the government is supporting them with millions of dollars in financing. The changes come as economists and other experts warn that South Korea risks falling behind its competitors unless it joins the world and overcomes a deficit in creative thinking and innovation.

In the last five years, South Korea's two top science colleges, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist, and the Pohang University of Science and Technology, called Postech, have brought in hundreds of American and European professors and switched to all-English campuses in shock-treatment programs designed to propel the two institutions into the academic big league. Seoul National, Yonsei, and Korea Universities are following suit with programs of their own.

The government's World Class University Project, which received 825 billion won ($752-million) last year, has fueled the process, pushing colleges to hire "outstanding foreign scholars." Seoul National University alone invited 59 foreign professors last year. Foreign hires are now a key criterion for government financial support, say experts.

"It's part of a conscious effort, of a desire not to be insular, to be cosmopolitan and better recognized," says Donald C. Bellomy, an American who is a professor of history at Sogang and has lived in Seoul for eight years. Paradoxically, he sees South Korea's "globalizing" effort as "profoundly nationalistic."

"It's a source of pride in preparing its citizenry for the globalized economy in which they have lately made their mark," he says.

South Korea's soaring ambitions can sometimes stumble over hard reality on the ground. At Postech's matriculation ceremony last year, all speeches, including the president's opening talk and the freshman oath, were made in English. University officials admitted that many parents didn't understand a word but told reporters that "this was the right way to go to become a top global university."

The cost of recruiting from abroad has also come under fire in the South Korean news media. With salaries often pegged to the dollar, universities must find 80 million won (about $71,000) a year for a foreign hire, nearly twice the annual salary for a Korean professor at a public university.

European and American transplants often deal, however, with more profound problems than resentful Korean colleagues and uncomprehending parents. Some experience deep culture shock as they try to acclimatize to life in a still overwhelmingly homogenous and hierarchical academic culture, says Paul Z. Jambor, a lecturer at the College of Education, Art & Design at Korea University.

"Faculty meetings are, for the most part, held in Korean, with little to no effort at including foreign faculty in the decision making at the respective departments," he says. "Most Korean university administrators strongly attest that all decisions are best left up to the Korean that knows Korean culture the best."

Mr. Bellomy, while accepting that the country is rapidly changing, agrees that foreign professors still have little leverage inside colleges here. "Decisions are top-down," he says. "We can't serve as department chairs or deans. We'd certainly like to find some way to increase our input."

'Difficulties Adapting'

Many universities are coy about revealing how long foreign professors stay, but an Education Ministry survey of 288 foreign academics last year found it averaged just four months. Last fall a foreigner hired as a full professor at Seoul National packed his bags after just a month, "citing difficulties adapting," according to the university.

Mr. Jambor points out that several U.S.-educated college presidents have quit after running into a cultural wall. He cites the case of the Nobel laureate Robert B. Laughlin, who left Kaist in 2006, halfway through his term. "The Korean faculty could simply not accept him as a valid leader, citing his foreign background, among other factors," says Mr. Jambor. Kaist says Mr. Laughlin's plans took the university away from its core strengths in science and technology.

One indication of South Korea's lingering fears about an influx of foreigners can be found at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, where $100-million in government money has been spent developing robot English teachers. Prototypes of the robot are operated remotely from the Philippines, keeping the "moral problems" associated with non-Koreans at arm's length, says Mun Sang Kim, director of the institute's Advanced Robotics Research Center.

"There are some problems and some accidents in hiring native speakers at the schools right now," he says. "For example, the immigration system in Korea is not good enough to examine whether the foreign visitors are clean or not, or they did some crime," he adds. "That's the reason why the government thinks about such robot systems. They don't have any such social problems, they don't do the drugs."

Mr. Lee, president of Sogang, accepts that there are "difficulties" associated with his plan to multiply the number of foreign professors. "We have to provide lots of services that are not needed for Koreans," he says, citing visas, housing, and solving "cultural misunderstandings." Also, he says, "some of our staff are not ready to support them."

But he notes that the university has started simultaneous translation of faculty meetings and is setting up an international office as a lifeline to the foreigners.

He rejects Mr. Jambor's notion that foreign faculty "feel excluded from everything outside of the expected lecture-room activities." Says Mr. Lee: "As long as our professors do good work, there is no discrimination. We welcome everyone, including more foreigners."

Many new foreign hires generally agree, although most cite a string of irritations. Ms. Son uses the word "glitches," such as the fact that foreigners can't get credit cards and her American husband can't work on his current visa. "But even if things don't work out in Korea, I want to stay in Asia," she says. "There are many more opportunities here."

Even critics like Mr. Jambor agree that, whatever happens, the growing internationalization of South Korea's faculty looks unstoppable—although he cautions that numbers alone won't win the battle.

"It is also about welcoming the foreigners and allowing them to join a common goal to help Korean faculty, administrators, and policy makers at making Korean universities truly world-class institutions."


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