[The Korea Herald] KAIST memo asked professors to raise grades

This exclusive was originally written in the midst of controversy in 2011 about the supposedly excessive levels of competition at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. — John 

A professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has rubbished claims that competition at the college is out of control, revealing that the then-dean of academic affairs sent a memo to lecturers last year asking them to bump up the average GPA of freshman.

The memo, which was seen by The Korea Herald, was sent by Lee Kwang-hyung last May to professors of freshmen courses, asking them to raise the average GPA for mandatory subjects.

Lee asked professors to raise the previous year’s GPA average for courses including calculus, general biology and introduction to programming from 2.53, 2.95 and 2.96, respectively, to between 3.2 and 3.3 for the 2010 spring semester.

The higher GPAs would have meant students avoiding tuition fees under controversial reforms introduced by KAIST president Suh Nam-pyo in 2007. Under the recently abolished system, students with a GPA under 3.0 had to pay part of their fees.

Lee expressed concern in the memo that the average GPA for mandatory courses in the 2009 spring semester had been low compared to the overall student body and that “lots of freshman who are in a difficult and unaccustomed situation feel devastated if they get terrible records and doubt about their choice of the (sic) career.”

Lee also said in the memo that students were advising their friends in high school to avoid KAIST because they would find it difficult to cope, and that raising the GPA average would “ease students’ burden.”

It is not yet clear to what extent the memo was adhered to. The professor who provided the memo to The Korea Herald said he hadn’t followed it precisely but had been more generous in his grading. Another KAIST professor confirmed he had followed the memo and indicated other professors had as well.

Lee declined to comment on the memo or the situation at KAIST.

The professor who released the memo on condition of anonymity has taught at KAIST for a number of years.

“If the dean of academic affairs is sending such a memo, is the university administration focused on competitiveness at all costs? I don’t think so,” the lecturer said.

He claimed that reports of the college promoting extreme competition were wildly exaggerated and that a significant minority of students he teaches act poorly in class.

“I’ve walked past classrooms and looked in the back and seen students watching videos on their laptops, checking Facebook, and so on. KAIST students do work hard, do deal with competition, are under stress — but I don’t think it’s at the hyperbolic level being portrayed in the media,” he said.

He also said attendance and punctuality were lax among many of his students.

“In classes without mandatory attendance, towards the end of the semester, I’ll get maybe 15-30 percent of the class showing up on time, and maybe 50 percent coming at all,” he said.

The professor added that in his view much of the criticism leveled at President Suh in the wake of five suicides at the college was unfair.

“It’s an elementary logical fallacy to assume that, because the suicides have occurred in a short period of time, that they must have the same cause, and a further fallacy to blame the policy that is most unpopular with students.”

He pointed out there had been little analysis of the suicide rates at other colleges or of young people generally, and that KAIST wasn’t necessarily an anomaly. An article in the Wall Street Journal recently calculated that about 2.5 suicides at KAIST a year would be in keeping with the national average, based on the number of students being 8,000.

Students, faculty staff and civic groups have repeatedly called for Suh’s resignation in recent days, blaming his reforms for creating unprecedented competition at the college.

Business majors at KAIST attend a meeting amid controversy over competition at the college in Daejeon on Tuesday. (The Korea Herald)

The college last week scrapped the tuition system for the first eight semesters and on Wednesday set up an emergency committee to alter Suh’s policies.

Suh has so far rejected demands to step down.committee to alter Suh’s policies.

Suh has so far rejected demands to step down.