By Jun-Youb Lee
On South Korea’s blue 1000-won note is a picture of Sungkyunkwan, the nation’s centuries-old bastion of Neo-Confucianism steps away from the old Changgyeong Palace in central Seoul.
But in a strange turn of events, a Confucian scholar battles for the soul of the institution — now one of South Korea’s premier universities — against an administration overseen by blue-blooded capitalists.
Sungkyunkwan is controlled by none other than the ubiquitous Samsung Group, whose founder “Hoam” Lee Byung-chul first took the helm of the university foundation in 1965. His twelve-year tenure, which ended with an intervention from the Ministry of Education, was marked by dogged student protests over allegations that Samsung profited by selling off university estate, failed to invest in the university as promised, and appointed eleven of fifteen trustees instead of six as originally agreed.
After a dumpling company Bongmyeong struggled to fill the lacuna in university budget following Samsung’s departure, the Samsung Foundation regained control of the school in 1996 with fresh rights to appoint university trustees and open an affiliated medical school in exchange for financial support. Having learned from its previous fiasco, the company has become more suave in its dealings with academia.
Under the aegis of Samsung, which has invested 1.5 trillion won ($1.3bn) since 1996, this 26,985-student institution has admittedly gained in stature, topping South Korea’s private university rankings in the UK-based Times Higher Education survey in 2015.
Traces of Samsung are ubiquitous on campus. Samsung built and renovated over a dozen buildings including the semi-conductor hall and Hoam Hall, named after the late Samsung founder. Under the late Mr. Lee’s initiative Sungkyunkwan built its natural sciences campus, crowned by the state-of-the-art Samsung Library, just 40 km away from its main campus in Seoul and 10 km away from Samsung Electronics Headquarters in Suwon.
Against this mighty university headed by a former physician of the bedridden Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee, its alum and employee Ryu Seung-wan has been staging a lonesome fight. Read more