Talking leadership: SKKU’s Ji-Beom Yoo on allowing failure

As overhaul presses staff and students to broaden horizons, president discusses handling faculty pushback, maintaining a vital Samsung partnership and dealing with disgruntled alumni

April 24, 2024
SKKU president Ji-Beom Yoo
Source: SKKU

When Ji-Beom Yoo is asked what he’s done in the first year of his presidency, he replies modestly: “We’re changing most of our university system.”

The head of Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), one of South Korea’s top private universities, Yoo has spent his first year in office outlining his plan for changes he laughingly downplays, despite the fact that “some faculty have called it radical”.

His overhaul, under the motto “inspiring future and grand challenges”, means to push students to think beyond the near future and buck a mindset now shared, Yoo says, by too many young Koreans, that sees higher study as merely a means of “taking a job and that’s it”.

The reforms involve changes across the university in research, management and the campus culture itself. In the first instance, there’s a shift in direction away from quantity of papers to quality.

“So far, like many Korean universities, we [have been] focusing on the number of papers published in international journals. But that’s not the way to go,” Yoo says. “I have to encourage research with high impact in academia or in industries.”

To that end, management must become “more flexible and agile”, he believes. “We have to allow failure, have to learn without fear.” This year, SKKU has implemented changes to its evaluation process for faculty. Scholars will be given more leeway to focus on what interests them most, whether it be research, teaching or projects with industry.

In the past, SKKU faculty needed to publish a certain number of papers to secure tenure; now they have several paths towards that goal. Strong performance on industry patents, for instance, can take the place of some academic papers.

For students, too, there will be more choice. Yoo believes that, unlike in the UK or the US, Korean learners “don’t have enough freedom” to experiment in university.

“Once they enrol [in] a specific department, they have to take so many courses, they spend most of [their] time [completing] requisites,” Yoo says. “We have to provide more freedom to choose majors and coursework and break the silos between the departments.”

In the past, students needed 60 credits in their course of study to graduate. Yoo has reduced this number to 40, with the other 20 credits allowing them to “surf” different disciplines.

SKKU students can pursue a dual major, and the university has established several “micro-degrees” – students can take three or four courses in a topic such as semiconductors or batteries and have this listed as a sub-speciality on their degree.

Yoo cites a Korean saying: “If you want to dig deeper, you have to dig wider from the beginning.”

His vision brings SKKU’s approach closer to that of a US liberal arts college – something still quite new in South Korea, where early specialisation and strict adherence to coursework within a subject area remain the norm. He believes that wider breadth of study allows students to gain skills necessary in an increasingly digitised world; it also helps the university stay current.

“In Korea, the education system is very strict until…university, so [students] don’t have any chance to experiment…That’s also very important in future society. We need the ability…to solve problems with complexity,” he says. “Such freedom provides a chance to do that.”

Some pushback has been inevitable. But Yoo believes staff are warming to the idea. And while the staunch single-discipline defenders can be a “headache” to a president who wants to breed a culture where subjects and fields mingle, he concedes that not everyone is going to be a convert to interdisciplinarity.

“A university is a university. There must be [the kind of people] who stick to their own areas. We need such professors; a variety in the composition and ideas is a very vital feature of a university…in principle, I understand and accept that kind of attitude.” Besides, he adds, for “all people to move in one direction is dangerous”.

Still, even with the internal changes afoot, Yoo must stay on the ball in other areas. SKKU’s collaboration with industry partner Samsung is a major source of funds – and a critical relationship that he seeks to maintain.

The company, which over the past 27 years has pumped $1.5 billion (£1.19 billion) in funding into its leading academic partner, has recently taken some of its money elsewhere. And, as big Korean tech conglomerates increasingly do in-house research and fund their own “universities” – internal departments meant to upskill employees – they risk undercutting a vital revenue source for Korean institutions.

Is Yoo concerned about these developments? If so, he hides it well. He maintains that, if anything, industry demand for SKKU’s offerings is on the rise. He notes its reskilling deal with Samsung; the company is due to send 150 employees over shortly.

“They ask us, please increase the number of student-employees we teach. There is so much demand in industry. They, by themselves, cannot take care of all their requirements. They have to collaborate.”

Plus, he says, there’s demand for the university’s courses.

“Some of the employees strongly want to go outside [the company to learn], to be in a university campus. It’s a different atmosphere. Employees in industry push their boss: ‘Please let us go outside, to SKKU.’”

Nevertheless, Yoo concedes that leaning too heavily on any one company for funding would be unwise. SKKU is building up its roster of collaborators; one of its most recent partners is the pharmaceutical and chemical company Yuhan. Crucially, these companies have strengths in areas outside Samsung’s focus – eliminating conflicts of interest.

“As president, I must find a balance…In Samsung, mainly the focus is on electronics. They don’t have a chemical part. But in the chemical part, LG is very strong. We have collaborations with them…in pharmaceuticals or medicine,” he says.

Yet it’s not always so cut and dried. “Sometimes [it’s] very difficult because Samsung is in semiconductors [and so are other companies]…It’s not fair [for the] same professor in the same department to deal with them at the same time – that we have to prohibit.”

But he insists that there is minimal top-down control over collaborations. Barring conflicts of interest, SKKU lets professors choose their partners, as long as an academic is not working with a partner company’s rival on similar subject matter.

The university’s bottom line aside, Yoo has one other big headache: his university’s reputation at home and abroad, which is determined most obviously by international rankings.

Despite SKKU’s enviable position as a top dog in Korean higher education, he, too, must worry about keeping alumni happy. For him, as for most leaders of Korean institutions, his university’s position in the global league tables is no small matter. He is used to receiving phone calls from disgruntled alumni during the rankings releases and enduring demands for explanations about “what happened to the university”.

Thankfully – and not coincidentally, one imagines – his stated goal of making the university more sustainable in the long term, along with the host of changes envisaged, should help to raise the university’s profile.

But first, Yoo will need to raise some revenue. If his first year has been about outlining a vision, his second will be about mustering more funds from industry and donors. He laughs knowingly.

“We need some money,” he says. “[Over the] next year, I have to go outside and get some resource.”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

Browse the full results of the Asia University Rankings 2024.

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