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It was only a matter time before the #metoo movement that first grew in force within the American entertainment industry gained traction in other countries. In Korea #metoo sent waves of shock across the peninsula, as sexual assault accusations piled up against powerful public figures. Ahn Hee-jung, once a presidential hopeful, now the disgraced former governor of the South Chungcheong province, will be forever remembered as a sexual predator who raped his secretary.

The impact has also been felt in Korea’s higher education system. Eight students came forward to accuse actor and assistant professor, Jo Min-Ki of Cheongju University, of sexual exploitation and rape. Most likely as a result, Jo committed suicide. This scandal, together with many similar incidents (For instance, at Myongji College where student accusations exposed the unlawful sexual activities of a whole department of faculty), has drawn the ire and attention of the Korean public. The ensuing national debate has largely centered on one clear message: the shaming of power and individuals who have used their position, stature, or fame to prey on the voiceless and a call for increased awareness and accountability by disciplinary bodies.

This blog reframes the discussion to consider a crucial topic absent thus far, at least in the context of Korea: the campus culture. The aim here is to constructively debate the university environment as it relates to sexual harassment and assault (SHA) and an opportunity to be seized by those typically charged with the quality of campus culture— student affairs professionals (SAPs). In Korea, a low premium is typically placed on safeguarding and improving the quality of life for university students while a high premium is placed on more tangible utilitarian goals, e.g., connecting students to the market. This is in contrast to the American practice in which the holistic development of students is emphasized. Indeed, a cultural change in Korea may be in order.

To this end, several critical questions demand attention. What is the current role of SAPs in Korea vis-à-vis the public backlash against campus-related SHA? Is there an opportunity for Korean SAPs to increase their involvement in the prevention, reaction and remedy of SHA on college campuses? What challenges might they face in this task? Finally, can Korean SAPs draw lessons from their foreign counterparts?

International lessons

At the most basic level, most universities around the world publicize their institutional policies regarding sexual harassment and assault on their websites and in faculty, staff and student handbooks. Typically, these policies are accompanied with related information about campus resources and services, which, in most universities, sit within the student affairs offices.

As another layer of defense, many universities offer training to students, staff and faculty. At many US schools, preventive education is conducted online and provided to incoming freshmen, sometimes tied to registration with a “hold” for students who do not participate. Similar online orientations are also found in universities in Australia, increasingly in the wake of a sobering report around campus-related sexual misconduct released by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2017.

These one-off offerings may be combined with or replaced by more comprehensive, integrated and strategic approaches that build in long-term training objectives. For example, Goldsmiths, University of London has adopted a 10-point plan, in part based on a student-agency model espousing the equal partnership of students in the development and implementation of a year-long SHA training program. Staff training is also treated strategically with the university leveraging the partnership with Rape Crisis South London to deliver comprehensive SHA education utilizing a range of instructional modalities. Similar initiatives can be found on US campuses. Dartmouth College, for instance, is now mandating sexual violence education during all four years of their students’ undergraduate study in addition to new housing arrangements in which students live in communities designed around required participation in social and academic programming as well as community events.

Another prevention model involves peer or bystander intervention. For example, students at the University of California, Berkeley learn to intervene as bystanders through a training session known as ‘Bear Pact’. A variation of this model can be found in Canada where students at universities based in Calgary, Alberta and Windsor are combating sexual assault through buddy systems.

Korea’s first steps toward cultural reform

The strategic practices outlined above are not exhaustive, and certainly are not without their challenges. They are, however, widely accepted lines of defense against SHA. While little is known about student affairs work around SHA in Korea, it seems that little is being done. Even at the basic level, whether policies and services are faithfully (and appropriately) applied is a big question. According to the Maeil Business Newspaper, sexual harassment prevention orientation mandated by Seoul National University for faculty is neither considered imperative by faculty, nor enforced by the university, with the orientation offered as a formality. If this is an indication of the entirety of student affairs work in this area in Korea, it is likely that their involvement is reactive at best.

Why is this? One reason may stem from the culture that predates Korea’s modern-day higher education. Korea has long been a hierarchical society in which the unequal treatment of women and students is shaped by the centuries-old traditions of Confucianism. Confucianism, adopted from China as a blueprint for social organization by Korea’s elite during the premodern period (1392-1910), endorses a society where relationships, including those between a husband and wife or teachers and students, are by inherently unequal. Thus, the barriers that female students face in higher education are intersectional, mutually reinforcing, and layered.

From this perspective it becomes clearer as to why faculty, campus leaders, and SAPs alike may be somewhat apathetic to notions of justice and equality. Those in positions of power may desire the preservation of unequal power relations.

All is not lost, however! There is a great deal of optimism pinned to the intensifying #metoo movement fueled by a brave few. At the helm are students, especially students, who demand a new reality in which respect, equal treatment, and increased awareness about the dangers of complacency with the dominant culture are emphasized. This type of agency is evident at many universities across Korea, such as Sookmyung Women’s University where students aim to dislodge traditional perspectives and beliefs by pushing for gender awareness training among all staff. Similarly, students at Jeju National University are fighting for change and increased awareness amid sexual abuse allegations directed at two professors.

Korea’s student affairs professionals have a role in this nascent cultural shift, not only as partners with student activists, but also as change agents. Indeed, the varied roles they might assume in the new reality are many and are especially vital given the adverse effects of sexual predation on campus. Victims of sexual violence are susceptible to the education-derailing effects of sexual trauma. These effects include increased risk of substance abuse, extreme fluctuations in weight, risky sexual behaviors, and, in some cases, an inclination towards suicide. Thus, SAPs in Korea have a real opportunity (triggered by #metoo) for meaningful involvement to minimize sexual trauma. A good place to start would be to conduct campus climate surveys, to “assess and improve various programs on campus” vis-à-vis current student needs, beliefs and experiences.

However, agents of change, as in any other country, must consider the contextual sensitivities and challenges of their work. As already mentioned, a great barrier lies in the ideology and traditions that govern every aspect of the Korean society, including higher education. Thus, leadership and faculty may not be ready for change and proactive SAPs may be perceived as a threat to the dominant cultural framework. Students as may be culturally conditioned to values they may bring with them when entering higher education. Their victimization may be perceived as a socially-accepted practice and the right of powerful individuals. Thus, although change is underway, it will be slow and undoubtedly met with opposition. The question becomes whether student affairs professionals in Korea will step up to the plate, even in the absence of supportive structures, and re-imagine their profession as an agency of disruption dedicated to the quality and safety of student life.

Edward Choi is a research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education and a doctoral student in the Boston College Higher Education program. Edward received his master's degree in International Educational Development from Teachers College, Columbia University. His research interests include higher education organization and administration, family-owned institutions and internationalization of higher education.



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