In South Korea, Foreign Professors Can Have a Hard Time Fitting In

January 7, 2013


By David McNeill


It all began well enough. Michael Foster joined his wife, a South

Korean, in Seoul in 2010 with a new doctorate in English literature

and a three-year, tenure-track contract at prestigious Korea

University. His aim was to build a life in a country that seemed

increasingly cosmopolitan and vibrant. Two years later, Mr. Foster,

an American, has abandoned his job and is involved in a bitter

dispute with his former employer.


Now back in New York with his wife, he says that he felt unwelcome

at the university from the start, and that his relationship with

faculty members and others deteriorated over time. He says he was

even accused of racism by one of his students. "One of the students

in evaluations said that I insulted Korea," he recalls. "The student

said, 'If America is so much better, you should go back.'"

Officials of Korea University decline to speak publicly in detail about

the matter, but one representative says the dispute began when Mr.

Foster broke various campus rules. Mr. Foster declined to appear

before a university ethics committee and has submitted his



The dispute is the latest in a string of cases in which American

professors have struggled with working in South Korea, which is

pushing hard to internationalize its higher-education system by

recruiting foreign talent.


The nation's top science college, the Korea Advanced Institute of

Science and Technology, known as Kaist, is being sued by Steven

Jordan, who was fired from his post last year as assistant professor

of finance at its graduate business school. Mr. Jordan says he was

unfairly dismissed for working at another university without

permission and for unauthorized travel, the result, he says, of an

administrative "misunderstanding."


Lan Yoon, a spokeswoman for the university, says, "We believe that

Kaist has taken due process to terminate employment with Steven

Jordan and consider his lawsuit against Kaist very unfortunate."

Seoul National University, one of the nation's most prestigious

institutions, faces criticism that it has provided inadequate support

for foreign faculty members and students. Some of them have

complained to the news media that most faculty meetings are

conducted in Korean, and documents written only in that language.

Professors from outside South Korea who work at private

universities have told The Chronicle, while requesting anonymity,

that their pay and conditions are worse than those of their local



South Korean universities have more than tripled their foreign hires

in the past decade, according to the Ministry of Education, Science,

and Technology. Although just 5,000 of the country's roughly

78,000 full-time faculty members are from outside its borders, the

proportion will almost certainly grow in coming years, as South

Korea tries to globalize and upgrade its insular higher-education



Recruiting, Not Retention

The speed of internationalization has produced problems.

Institutions often put much more effort into recruiting foreign

professors in a short-term bid to raise rankings than into retaining

them, says Gary Kennedy, an American who has taught in the

English departments of three universities in South Korea over the

past eight years. They fail to prepare for foreign hires, he says,

adding that employment contracts, policies, and support structures

are often lacking.


When they arrive, new foreign professors struggle to integrate into

Korean faculty, where older professors dominate departments in a

system Mr. Kennedy describes as "feudal." "Anyone who lacks a

champion is likely to be in a weak position," he says, so when

foreign professors run into problems, "there is nobody to turn to for

help and advice."


In his experience, the employment arrangements seem to favor

Korean academics, with many foreign professors working on

contract. Dispute resolution often involves little more than simply

agreeing with the most senior Korean faculty member, Mr. Kennedy



In private, some senior Korean faculty members agree with many of

these criticisms, but they insist that the problems are the inevitable

growing pains of a system in transition.


The nation's two most highly regarded science-and-research

institutions, Kaist and Pohang University of Science and

Technology, known as Postech, have put enormous effort into

internationalizing their faculty. Both have recruited dozens of

foreign professors, made English the campus lingua franca, and

built apartments for the international faculty.


The aim, says Nam Pyo Suh, president of Kaist, is to create

institutions where the careers of foreign professors can thrive. Mr.

Suh, who earned his Ph.D. in the United States and held positions at

the National Science Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of

Technology, acknowledges that non-Korean professors face

"difficulties" in South Korea. "But conditions for international

faculty will continue to improve. For Korea's globalization effort,

recruiting more international faculty is a top priority."


Critics say, however, that the problems of integration are

compounded by Korean universities' defensiveness and

hypersensitivity to foreign criticism. Mr. Foster, the former

professor at Korea University, thinks the student's accusation of

racism against him began when he referred to homophobia in

Korean culture during a course on the history of romance.

Distrust of foreigners is a nationwide issue and must be put in

context, says Paul Z. Jambor, an assistant professor in English for

academic purposes at Korea University. "It likely stems out of the

Japanese colonial period, in which one of the main aims of the

Japanese armed forces was to eradicate Korean culture and the

Korean spirit."


Donald C. Bellomy, an American who teaches history at Sogang

University, in Seoul, says foreign professors who want to work in

South Korea must be prepared to adapt to a culture that has not

always been welcoming toward outsiders, "and for good reason."

The culture is, however, "in some respects more open than one

would expect, given its history."


Mr. Foster does not disagree but says, "I'm not the kind of person

who can be a pioneer."


Since he left Seoul, the dispute between Mr. Foster and Korea

University has escalated. The professor says he is considering legal

action, while the university says he is the subject of a police

investigation for sending threatening messages to senior faculty

members. Mr. Foster denies that accusation.


However the fight is resolved, Mr. Foster says, he won't return. "You

couldn't pay me enough to go back to South Korea," he says.


Correction (1/9/2013, 12:31 p.m.): This article originally said

incorrectly that Mr. Foster had been fired from Korea University.

He was not. He has submitted his resignation, which has yet to be

processed by the university. The article has been updated to reflect

this correction.

Chronicle of Higher Education Jan. 7, 2013