Seventy-one years have passed since the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule; in 1946, the first year after the transition, Seoul National University was founded as the country’s flagship university. Since that time, South Korea has transformed itself from a war-torn aid recipient to the world’s 13th-ranked economy, thanks to a strong cultural investment in education. SNU has been a steadfast source of that educational power since its founding.
When I took the office of president of SNU in 2014, I declared that my first priority was to educate “goodwilled, brilliant minds”. In this century, universities should pursue both their traditional timeless mission, and the mission of the moment, responding to l’esprit du temps. Educating students to achieve their maximum potential and cultivating a sense of goodwill and responsible citizenship are the highest missions of the university.
To foster “goodwilled” leaders, I changed the undergraduate entrance system to make it more inclusive of students from varying socio-economic backgrounds. In previous years, SNU had generally accepted only those with the highest academic scores in high school and on standardised tests, but I decided that we would recruit only 30 per cent through this conventional system. Entry for the majority of applicants is now decided through consideration of many other aspects, based on essays, bearing in mind the university’s mission of achieving a diverse student body. Strong-minded young people who are not from privileged families or institutions and who have overcome adversity to achieve excellence can now gain a place at the best university in Korea.
Last year, I prompted the development of new interdisciplinary courses, such as “Human Nature and the Good Life” and “Exploring Happiness”, for the purpose of preparing students to be goodwilled leaders of the future. These courses help young people to find their own answers to life’s important questions before they begin their long career journeys.
Realising one’s inner goodwill can be an unaffordable luxury for those who come from challenging financial circumstances. That is why I changed the financial aid system from a merit-based system to a needs-based one. Beginning this year, the university provides every student admitted from a family among the lowest 10 per cent by household income with a full-tuition scholarship and additional support for fees, housing and meals. Law school students can receive full scholarships by promising to repay the money in the future, creating a fund that will be used to assist needy students.
It is very important for goodwilled leaders to understand global concerns and to be engaged in developing solutions for international development crises. Last year, I visited a remote village in Nepal where a group of SNU students assisted in the creation of a sustainable, localised energy system that would provide electricity to power economic development. It was reassuring to see goodwilled students from our institution applying their talents to serve global society. I resolved to continue the mission to produce more such individuals.
I believe that another responsibility of our university is to respond to the paradigmatic shift of the zeitgeist. It was the 20th-century mission of the university to create new academic fields that could meet the demands of a developing society. In the 21st century, however, the most important mission of our university is to create innovative solutions to multifaceted global problems by bringing together all possible forms of knowledge. This convergence is possible only when we educate and conduct research beyond our conventional academic and national borders.
For example, the university established the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology in the satellite campus in Suwon to advance interdisciplinary objectives. In addition, the College of Liberal Studies was recently established to push undergraduates to conduct studies beyond traditional academic boundaries.
Interdisciplinary objectives can be better achieved under the auspices of international cooperation. Last year, I was appointed chairperson of the Association of East Asian Research Universities. This forum for the presidents of leading research universities in East Asia was organised to promote active academic exchanges. In service of the AEARU mission statement, I am working hard to connect universities beyond their own networks and national borders.
Seoul National University is growing into an institution of interdisciplinary studies working on an international stage. Knowing that global problems will be impossible to solve using conventional approaches, SNU has founded the Graduate School of International Studies, which conducts research integrating all possible academic perspectives, from humanities and social sciences.
With goodwilled minds who engage in scholarship beyond national borders, Seoul National University will continue to sow the seeds of intellectual development in Asia, where tradition meets innovation.
President, Seoul National University