DAEJEON, South Korea - For decates, the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology has helped fuel this country's dramatic economic boom. But its recent skirmish with an American Academic - and a campus clash of ideas and ideologies - illustrates some of the challenges facing South Korea as it adjusts to a tough new climate.
Since its founding in 1971, Kaist has been one of the leading training grounds for top scientists and engineers. Manufacturing giants like Samsung, LG and Hyundai have come to rely on the school for its steady stream of graduates.
Three years ago, the South Korean government, fearing that this industrialized country was failing to keep up with the times, decided state-run Kaist needed an overhaul. The new goal: produce more groundbreaking research, and in the process, help low-profile Kaist gain a place on the international academic radar.
Despite a swift rebound from the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties, growth in south Korea has slowed as low-cost manufacturing has shifted to Chinese competitors. Meanwhile, South Korea's other neighbor, Japan, is newly resurgent after more than a decade of economic doldrums.
"Korea is a small country between two major economies," says Rim Kwan, former chairman of Kaist's board of trustees. He believes that in order to survive, his country needds to move away from the manufacturing sector, which Kaist was rounded to sustain, and find "our own blue ocean," as opposed to a "red ocean" that is bloodied by competition in a crowded market. "It's about finding new business models," he says, and Kaist must change accordingly.
To take up the task, Dr. Rim and the Korean Ministry of Science and Technology, which controls and funds Kaist, took the unusual step of recruiting a Nobel Prize-winning American physicists named Robert B. Laughlin. Agreeing to name him president in the summer of 2004, both the ministry and the Kaist board gave him wide latitude to re-engineer the school.
The school's first non-Korean president, Dr. Laughlin knew little about Korea of Kaist. Yet he envisioned bold reforms. He wanted to expand the curriculum to include more libveral-arts offerings, as well as pre-law and pre-med programs. Dr. Laughlin also thought that more classes should be taught in English, and that the school should charge tuition as a way to wean itself from government dependence. In short, he set out to remake Kaist in the mold of a top American private university.
Dr. Laughlin, a Stanford physicist, is a talkative man quick to express his opinions. His perspective as an outsider was part of his appeal.
"Innovation is very difficult to initiate with a man from inside," says Dr. Rim. Dr. Laughlin also had a connection to Kaist through a friendship with Salk Sung-ho, a leading south Korean academic and a member of Kaist's board of trustees.
Though he lacked administrative experience, Dr. Laughlin's Nobel Prize in physics gave him prestige. A Nobel in the sciences is a stamp of international recognition that many Koreans covet. Says Lee Yong-hee, a Kayst physics professor: Koreans "are crazy about Nobel Prize winners."
A California native who graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Laughlin, 56 years old, earned a Ph.D. in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked at Bell labs before becoming a professor at Stanford. He won his Nobel Prize in 1998 for work he did in theoretical physics at the age of 33.
In June of 2004, Dr. Salk flew to San Francisco with a few other government and university officials to offer Dr. Laughlin $500,000 a year to take the jog - or about $200,000 more than past Kaist presidents had earned. At a meeting at his suburban home near the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif., Dr. Laughlin realls, the Korean delegation told him, "This is a chance to make an impact. It'll be easy. You'll just go there and be yourself."
Dr. Laughlin, who is married with two grown children, discussed the offer with his wife, Anita, and accepted a few days later.
When Dr. Laughlin arrived at Kaist in July of 2004, he settled into the presidsent's house on campus, on the outskirts of Daejeon, Korea's fifth-largest city and an hour south of Seoul by high-speed train.
Koreans seemed receptive to a fresh start spearheaded by a foreigner. In 2002, Dutch soccer coach Guus Hddink had set an unlikely precedent by leading south Korea's soccer team to an upset fourth-place finish at the World Cup. Some Koreans spoke of Dr. Laughlin as a kind of scientific Hiddink who could help bring the institution more fame and prestige.
As he immersed himself in his new job, he developed pointed opinion about Kaist. He says he saw it as an aging institution - and a byproduct of Korea's old approach to business.
In December 2004, Dr. Laughlin sent a six-page drage proposal to the Kaist faculty outlining his reform plan. One initiative was aimed at shifting more of the school's resources to undergraduates - students in their more formative years - and away from the graduate school, which he viewed as a Ph.D. mill. Another idea was to peg professors' and researchers' pay to their achievements.
Noting that many of stanford's undergraduates were enrolled in either pre-lay or pre-med programs, he was keen to bring the two disciplines ot Kaist. He lobbied for courses in the arts and music, and suggested building a recording studio for students on Kaist's campus.
In arguing for a more creative curriculum, Dr. Laughlin, a skilled classical pianist himself, said that mathematical and musical ability are often correlated, and should both be nurtured.
One of Dr. Laughln's proposal was especially controversial. Until then, Kaist's tuition was almost entirely subsidized by the government. His plan: to charge students tuition that would then wean Kaist off its dependence on government largess.
His suggestion implied a wholesale change in Kaist's mission. "The current model," he wrote in his proposal, "is to contract with the government to supply highly intelliigent, well-trained workers to industriy at low cost. The new model is to contract with parents and students to create an excellent, general-purpose educational environment weighted toward science and engineering." It was, he argued, "the only way forward."
Dr. Laughlin invited the school's entire faculty to a meeting on campus to discuss his ideas. Some professor had gotten wind of some of his proposals, and had already gathered in smaller groups to express their opinions. But in the campus auditorium, their concerns erupted as they fired questions at the president.
On faculty member stood up and said, "This document is like a tsunami." Yoon Choon-sup, a Kaist physics professor, says he was deeply worried. "These are drastic changes," he remembers thinking.
Manyh of Kaist's professor didn't believe re-creating Stanford outside of Seoul was the answer. Although they did acknowledge the school needed to update its approach, they also maintained that the university had an obligation to train top-flight engineers to sharpen Korea's industrial edge.
Lim Hyung-kyu, a graduate of Kaist and the president of the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, which has some joint research projects with the school, says that he does not think introducing pre-lay and pre-med programs into the curriculum would be a good idea. "I'm not sure how those kind of things help," he says. "Certainly, if you have so many things, it's like an ordinary national university."
Some of the faculty bridled at the idea of a tuition model. they viewed subsidies as the best way to attract top and needy talent. They believed the Korean government needed to continue its financial support of the country's scientific establishment in order to nurture future engineers.
"Korea has no resources except manpower," says Park O-ok, a professor of chemistry and biomolecular engineering and one of Dr. Laughlin's most outspoken opponents. "So we have to focus on science and technology to develop our country.... In our case, customer is government. Next cursomer is industriy. That is the priority."
Some members of Kaist's board agreed in principle with a number of the new president's ideas. Dr. Rim, the board's chairman at the time, concurrect that Kaist should evnetually reduce its government funding, but gradually. He also viewed the pre-law and pre-med programs as reasonable additions.
But it was faculty resistant that prevented Dr. Laughlin from presenting his draft proposal in its original form to the ministry. Instead, one of his deputies helped modify it to make it more acceptable to the faculty, dropping some of its most contentions language and ideas and forging a temporary compromise.
Over the next few months, however, the rift between Dr. Laughlin and his faculty widened.
By this time, Dr. Laughlin, an imposing figure at about 6 feet tall, with a dollop of snow-white hair, had earned a reputation for arrogance amont the faculty. Dr. Yoon, from the physics department, remember meeteing the Dr. laughlin and being turned off after Dr. Laughlin monopolized the conversation.
"This was not only me, but that was the impression of the other professors," says Dr. Yoon. "He just gave his opinions. He talked and talked and talked." (Although he concedes that he had firm ideas, Dr. Laughlin says he was a good listener.)
The faculty accused Dr. Laughlin of spending too much time abroad and neglecting his duties. The Korea Times obtained a copy of his personal schedule and ran a story with an exhaustive table detailing each of his trips back to the U.S.
Dr. Laughlin describes the travel flap as a "fake problem invented to destabilize my presidency." He confirms that he took paid leave, rather tha vacation time, to tour the U.S. to promote a book he had written about theoretical phsycis. But he says the trips didn't violate dthe terms of his contract.
the school newspaper, written in Korean, began printing negative articles baout his presidenty, which he dismissed as "propaganda." Dr. Laughlin, wanting to reach more students from abroad, tried to persuade the Kaist Times to add English translations to its Web site. When students resisted, Dr. laughlin found someone to translate the articles and then prepared a sample Web page for the students to see.
But his methods proved unpopular. Ryu Keun-chan, and member of Korea's national assembly who as involved in Kaist's oversight, cited cultural issues as a problem. Dr. Laughlin, he says, "could not communicate his ideas to students and professors."
Dr. Laughlin doesn't think that cultural issues played much of a role during his tenure. "I find that when Korean bring up those subjects they're mostly trying to deflect the conversation away from the issuess they really care about - money and job security - because talking about them in public is taboo.
In an attempt to assert his control, Dr. Laughlin in december 2005 set out to personally interview and evaluate every one of Kaist's 400 or so faculty members, focusing mainly on the quality of their research projects and academic work. For those professors who agreed to the interviews, he gave them a one-paragraph summary grading their work from "unimportant" to "very important".
His general conclusion: that while Kaist had some faculty who were "truly inspirational," the school also had a lot of "deadwood" faculty compared with MIT or Stanford. (Suh Nam-pyo, Kaist's current president, says that he has not evaluate dthe school's faculty members individually, but has found KAist has "many excellent professors.")
The evaluations united the faculty against Dr. Laughlin, and professors began to speak out against him in class.
the final blow came in March of last year, when 20 department heads submitted a ltter threatening to resign if Dr. Laughlin did not step down as president.
Around the time of the interviews, Dr. Salk took a train to Daejeon to meet with Dr. laughlin at his office on campus and told him it was "maybe better to resign, rather tha hanging onto it. I was really concerned as a friend.... He was losing his reputation."
Dr. Laughlin declined to step down. To this day, he is convinced that Dr. Salk, his longtime confidant, tripped the balance of the board when his renewal came up last spring and was rejected. Dr. Salk declinde to say how he voted.