Feeling Unwelcome in Korea

Western scholars recruited to a top university report feeling their careers are limited, and they leave after a few years.

March 17, 2016

Since the turn of the millennium, South Korean universities have been trying to improve their research capabilities by attracting scholars from across the world to shake up a sometimes insular system.

But a study has found that in at least one of the country’s top institutions, foreign faculty members are feeling disempowered and usually leave a few years after being recruited, raising questions about how successfully Korean universities and other Asian institutions are integrating their increasing numbers of international academics.

Stephanie Kim, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Korean Studies, interviewed nearly 50 faculty members, administrators and students at Underwood International College, which was opened in 2006 by the prestigious Seoul-based Yonsei University.

She discovered a dispiriting picture of life as an international member of staff at Yonsei. Foreign staff were young and untenured, which meant that they could not hold senior administrative posts at their own college.

Senior managers came from other departments and academic units, leaving one interviewee to say that there was a “feeling among faculty that the central administration dictates what’s going to happen without consulting us.”

For example, in 2011 the main base of UIC was moved away from Yonsei’s main campus in Seoul despite faculty members and students having little desire to hold classes at the new site, Kim’s interviews found.

Lacking connections from previous study at the university, international faculty members were cut off from powerful networks within Yonsei, according to the study, “Western faculty ‘flight risk’ at a Korean university and the complexities of internationalization in Asian higher education,” published in Comparative Education.

Without connections, foreign faculty members felt that there was a “glass ceiling to their career prospects” at Yonsei. “If my dream was becoming dean, it would probably bother me because I think there are relatively few deanships in Yonsei that would be open to a foreign professor,” one interviewee told Kim.

However, there are some signs of change to this network-driven system, Kim told Times Higher Education. “Because of recent public backlash to elitism in Korean universities, some schools have established a quota system that allows a department only a certain number of new hires from those with alumni connections,” she explained, but added that it was so far unclear whether this would help foreign faculty members.

The interviews suggest that Yonsei is not yet attracting those scholars with other career options. “Almost all came because they could not find a suitable academic job in the United States or another Western country,” the paper says.

Many international academics “arrive at Yonsei University only to leave within several years,” the paper found, as faculty members still wanted to work at a Western university because this was seen as better for their career prospects.

Kim said that the problems at Yonsei “may very likely” be replicated at other universities in South Korea, and she hoped to explore this in future research.

In her study, she suggests that the “mass departure of Western faculty members from a Korean university suggests that Asian [higher education institutions] are not actually integrating them into their faculty body in a meaningful way -- implying that Westernization is merely a strategically appropriated facade.”

Previous research, conducted by scholars from Stanford University and Yonsei, has also suggested that foreign academics are often perceived as “temporary skilled labor” and “second-tier” scholars.

Yonsei University did not reply to a request for a response in time for Times Higher Education's deadline.

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