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
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
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
Chronicle of Higher Education Jan. 7, 2013