KAIST-NYU campus ‘shows Asia taking the lead’, says executive

Leading Korean and US institutions are equal partners in development of New York outpost

November 30, 2023
Korean Day Parade along Avenue of the Americas in New York, USA. Motorbike with American and Korean flags
Source: Alamy

Work is well under way to establish a joint campus between leading Korean and US institutions in the heart of New York City – showing that an Asian university is ready to lead rather than follow, according to a senior administrator.  

Dong Man Lee, executive vice-president at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), who played a key role in establishing its new campus in partnership with New York University, said it would be a game-changer, not only for his institution, but also for the broader sector.

“For the last 50 years, Korea tried to follow other countries,” he said. “Previously, I dare to say, it’s been somewhat unbalanced ground…we tried to learn something from advanced countries. We were fast followers, but now it’s time to be the first mover.”

For KAIST, “South Korea’s MIT” – the comparison to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is telling – a US branch is a step toward making KAIST a leading global university.

But this requires changing people’s mindsets: even as Seoul has soared from a city destroyed in the Korean War to a global technology hub, and as Korean institutions have taken the lead in the development of batteries and superconductors, old perceptions have stuck.

“One need only listen to politicians here speak,” Professor Lee said. “When talking about new policies or plans, they say, ‘Advanced countries are doing this and that, so we have to.’ So I [respond] to them, ‘We are an advanced country, they are our competitors…We are equal.’”

By the same token, he said, KAIST and NYU set out right from the beginning to be “equal partners”, splitting education and research resources, whatever funding either brought to the table, 50:50. Each has free space within the other’s university, enabling them to get off the ground without needing to build physical infrastructure for the time being.

KAIST has dozens of collaborations with Western universities already, including dual-degree programmes. But Professor Lee said that the NYU partnership was different, providing a crucial foothold on New York’s business and start-up market for its students.

The project includes nine joint research centres, every one with six or seven faculty members from each university participating.

While both partner institutions contribute some seed money – KAIST has already got 1.3 billion won (£800,000) in donations – in a departure from its previous initiatives the plan asks faculty to generate their own research funding. Total funding from the two parent universities stands at 4.3 billion won.

The partnership also builds on the existing undergraduate student exchanges between KAIST and NYU. Unlike previous New York-bound KAIST students, the current crop will earn a “minor” degree from the US-based institution, something that’s “different from regular student exchange”, Professor Lee noted.

He said he wanted its students heading to New York to see themselves differently. “We explained to them, ‘You’re not going over there as international exchange students. You’re going there to our KAIST New York campus.’”

The same should apply in reverse, he added. “That’s why it’s very different from conventional international student exchange.”

Last autumn, KAIST scrapped plans to go solo in the US and get funding from a Korean-American businessman to fund the construction of buildings. However, Professor Lee said, the institutions were “building foundations” for a long-lasting partnership. “I believe it’s great start,” he said.


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