A Lesson to Learn from the ‘Laughlin Experiment’
By Kim Dong-hoon (金東勳)

Kookmin University (國民大學校)

After a prolonged dispute with professors, Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, president of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), has failed to obtain the approval of the institute’s board of trustees for a second two-year term at the university. With his setback, Korea is to put an unfinished end to its “Laughlin experiment,” in which the Nobel laureate for physics was appointed as the first foreign president of the prestigious institution in 2004 with the mission to reinvigorate the country’s top science and technology institution.

It is really a pity that the experiment, unprecedented in Korea, is destined to end up in a fiasco, all the more so as the nation put great expectations on the former Stanford University professor who, upon assuming the position, pledged to create a new model for KAIST. He sought to transform it into a world-class research university, comparable to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of the United States.

Looking at it from the outside, the American theoretical physicist had a fresh vision for the direction of KAIST’s development and firm intentions for reform. But, obviously he failed to build a common ground with faculty and other constituent groups of the university about the specific concept and direction of its reform.

In particular, he became entangled in endless disputes with most of more than 400 faculty members, who should have served as the mainstream of reform. According to an eleventh-hour in-house poll, some 89 percent of the professors surveyed were opposed to his reappointment, and this steep antipathy must have played a critical role in his exit.

The Laughlin case presents an illustrative instance that a reform program cannot succeed, however firm the intention of its leader or promoter may be, unless he manages to induce willing participation by the constituent parties concerned through persuasion and motivation.

Nonetheless, many contentious issues raised by Dr. Laughlin, including plans for the state-funded KAIST’s transformation into a private institution, provide ample grounds for prompting a fundamental review of the present situation of the country’s higher education and its reform direction.

As is well known, KAIST was founded in the 1970s with the objective of educating and training highly qualified scientists and engineers and has since produced a good number of superior experts armed with theoretical and practical expertise in the science and technology fields to support Korea’s rapid industrialization.

Notwithstanding the achievement, Dr. Laughlin questioned whether the state-financed system of running the university was still valid in the changing environment of the 21st century. Although the institution undeniably played a vanguard role with the state’s backup in the initial stage of industrialization, one wants to ask whether KAIST is justified remaining in the bounds of government subsidies under today’s educational circumstances of the country. Science and technology education here has so prevailed that many private universities also produce a great number of high quality human resources.

Indeed, time has come to acknowledge the need of competition between KAIST and many private universities. In competition of any kind, the government’s support of a certain contending party unquestionably leads to unfair competition, which undermines the very competitiveness of the entire system.

Seen in a broader sense, this problem derives from a shortcoming of Korea’s higher education system as a whole, in which private universities are mixed with stated-funded national universities without any plausible principles. More problematic is the hard fact that the state-financed system is largely inefficient.

Laughlin has continuously stressed in his contributions to, and interviews with the mass media that one important step KAIST has to take for its sustained development is to free itself from the longstanding state-subsidized model. “So long as a university gets state subsidies, it is bound to follow government dictations,” he said in an interview. On another occasion, he pointed out that Korea was standing at the crossroads on how to readjust the relationship between state and national universities.

In this regard, the KAIST president stressed that education should satisfy students and their parents. He then proposed that, to this end, his institution be turned into a private university with an increase in its student enrollment, collection of tuition fees from students and installment of popular undergraduate courses in law and medicine. But his proposal met stiff objection from many sides on the grounds that it runs contrary to the institution’s pronounced objective of a specialized research-oriented institute for science and technology.

Nowadays, “user-oriented” human resources development has become the primary direction of university reform. That is, educational institutions should be able to satisfy the needs of students as education consumers and enterprises and society as consumers of human resources. This sort of demand is most important in the science and technology field in which a fair market relationship is needed between industries as consumers and science-technology education institutions as suppliers.

The overriding demand can only be properly met by the application of adequate market principles to fundamentally rearrange systems required for effective supply of human resources, rather than by strengthening state subsidy systems. The failed Laughlin experiment involves many issues from which we have to seriously learn.

[The Korea Economic Daily, April 2, 2006]