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Ewha president discusses female leadership

Dec 10,2018
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Kim Hei-sook, the president of Ewha Womans University, is interviewed by the JoongAng Ilbo on Nov. 26 at Ewha Womans University. [EWHA WOMANS UNIVERSITY]
Two years have passed since it was revealed that Ewha Womans University gave Chung Yoo-ra, the daughter of former President Park Geun-hye’s confidant Choi Soon-sil, special treatment in admissions and grading. The university administration building was then occupied by students and professors, who demanded the resignation of the then-university president, Choi Kyung-hee. Eventually, in October 2016, Choi stepped down.

Ewha Prof. Kim Hei-sook moved many of the students who protested against the illegal treatment with her speech at a National Assembly hearing on the scandal in December 2016. The following year, she became the first Ewha Woman University president elected through a direct election system.

Kim was originally appointed as the first dean of Scranton College, an interdisciplinary academic college within Ewha Womans University, in 2007. The educational curriculum she designed focused on the convergence of design and technology.

About 18 months have passed since Kim became president. One has to question how much has changed during that time. In order to find the answers, the JoongAng Ilbo interviewed Kim on Nov. 26 at the Ewha campus in western Seoul to talk to her about her experience as the university’s president.



Q. What was the most difficult experience you had during your term as president?

A
. After the admission corruption scandal, the whole university was split into different groups - each having a different opinion about the scandal, but all were thoroughly hurt that it happened. I tried to focus on healing all the wounds and creating a safe place where we could be one, like we have been for 132 years. It took a long time before the campus was full with energy, like it used to be before the scandal reared its ugly head.


When is your job most worthwhile?

Whenever I see students’ faces when they come up to me and say that “now [they] feel happy.” Recently, students from all different departments came together to participate in a film festival. It was great to watch the students communicate with each other through the films they presented.



The first thing you did was focus on decentralizing power. Should this be interpreted as the start to making sure admission scandals do not happen again in the future?

[The scandals] did affect my decision [to decentralize] power, but universities are already structured so as to where decisions can’t be made by an individual. A wide variety of problems can occur [if power is centralized.] The first thing I did when I started my term was to try this initiative in the College of Art & Design and College of Science & Industry Convergence. [These colleges] decide on their education curriculum and future educational projects all by themselves. I am also planning to allow other colleges to exert flexibility over tasks, like choosing specially appointed professors themselves.



Was there any opposition from faculty?

At first, the professors were not comfortable, because it meant that there were more responsibilities on their shoulders. However, after much discussion and persuasion, they are now very compliant. The evaluation criteria used by the Ministry of Education on only giving a certain percentage of students a certain grade is what gets to me. I wish that the Education Ministry would allow universities to have more autonomy.



A huge change was made to the admission process as well. Ewha Womans University is the first university to accept students only according to their academic field. Why did you decide to implement this admission strategy?

Students are first admitted into the liberal arts field or natural science field. After one year, they have to declare their major. This kind of admission process was first implemented with our freshmen class this year. We also plan to pick 382 freshmen next year using the same process as well. Thanks to this arrangement, freshmen who first were admitted to the liberal arts can change their academic field to the natural sciences.


We have heard that you have a special interest in science and technology. Why is that, considering that you are a philosophy professor?

After modernization, the academic field was divided into specialized majors. This is why we normally think that humanities studies and science are two completely different things. However, in the past, philosophers also studied the stars and math. Strengthening humanistic knowledge is not only just about understanding human thought but also the natural world that surrounds us.



Ewha Womans University has always specialized in female leadership. How would you define female leadership in our contemporary society?

Philosopher Karl Marx always thought that the proletariat was closer to knowing the truth about everything then the bourgeoisie. Viewing the world through the eyes of the subjugated class will help widen your perspective. Under [Korea’s] patriarchal society, the woman is always a helper to the man. Because we are suppressed, we develop a sense of empathy for others. Female leadership is not only focused on strengthening the rights of a woman but also making sure to take care of the underprivileged and suppressed by understanding their troubles.



Some people think that a woman-only university should not exist. What do you have to say to those people?

In order to level out the playing field, we do need a women-only university. Philosopher Rene Descartes demonstrates the existence of God through methodological skepticism. He was never a complete skeptic. The logic stands to reason for why we need a women-only university. If our society was really equal, then there would be no reason for us to have this kind of discussion.



Why do you think that the conflict between genders gets worse with each day?

As life gets harder, it’s easier to express all your pent up anger to the weak. Hate is allowing many to bully just one. In order to eradicate such hate from our society, we need to create a place where common sense and knowledge triumphs all decisions. For example, when looking at problems concerning woman rights, we shouldn’t just react emotionally but try to review the situation with a clear head. By reviewing every possible problem that occurs, we will be able to find a solution.



How would you define feminism in Korean society?

Our society’s female culture is quite different from any westernized society. In Korea, yes, there are some females who are degraded because of patriarchal values, but there are also some who act as the adult in the household and earn respect because of that. In this context, the female does not exist as a counterpart for males, but are accepted as a mature human being. This part of our culture is our strongest asset [when it comes to feminism.]


BY YUN SUK-MAN [jeong.juwon@joongang.co.kr]