Office of the President

Inaugural Address by 9th President Dr. Seong Keun Kim

2023-09-05 314

My fellow professors, students, staff, alumni, and guests of POSTECH, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude and greetings to all of you. It is with a great sense of responsibility I take office today as the ninth president of one of the most prestigious universities in Korea.

As I prepared my inaugural speech, I took time to look back on the path POSTECH has taken over the past 37 years. I pondered what direction we should take with this second leap forward, how we can contribute to the development of our region and nation, and where we see ourselves in the future. Let me share my thoughts on these critical questions with you.

When POSTECH was founded in 1986, it was a time when the primary role of Korean universities was to educate and supply human resources to build the nation. POSTECH was established as the first research university in Korea, and has grown into a world-class institution in an impressively short period of time with outstanding leaders who had an incredible foresight, strong support from POSCO and its subsidiaries, and extraordinary passion from our members. The World Bank has even issued a special report on POSTECH’s rapid growth.

However, the waves and tides of change today are too big and too steep for us to be lulled into complacency by these past achievements. The realities of today, i.e., economic slow-down and rapid population decline, a resulting loss of societal momentum, and extreme concentration in metropolitan areas, require completely different actions and responses from Korean universities, and POSTECH in particular, than those of the past.

A few days ago, I visited the Seoul National Cemetery to pay my respects and walked around the Nobel Garden on campus, alone. I thought about what kind of spirit Tae-Joon Park, the founding chairman, and Ho-Gil Kim, the first president, would require of me and you if they were to return to this auditorium. The answer may lie with the empty pedestal in the plaza in front of the auditorium reserved for the statue of Korea’s first winner of Nobel Prize for Science. Contrary to popular belief, the value that the Nobel Prize seeks to honor is not merely academic success, but rather the adventurous spirit of going where no one has gone before. What we need is a trailblazer who cuts a trail in the dense jungle, rather than a racer who races on a road well paved by others. As I reflected on the entrepreneurial spirit of POSCO and the foundational values of POSTECH, it became clear to me that there is no gene for easy success and comfortable complacency in the DNA of Postechians.

So what are the education, research and social contributions that we must aspire to achieve with such a pioneering spirit?

Over the past few decades, Korean universities have grown tremendously, and many of them are now world-class, but the academic traditions that Western universities have cultivated over hundreds of years are still rarely seen in Korean universities.

Rather than pursuing truth and igniting intellectual curiosity, we have taken a greater interest in mere publications and grants, avoided fierce debates, and became indifferent to other academic fields and researchers. In doing so, we have given way to academic factionalism and territoriality, hierarchy and bureaucracy, and campus politics.

POSTECH should take the leading role in rising from this regressive reality and pursue the highest values that the world’s leading universities uphold and have upheld for generations: Academism. Intellectual curiosity and the desire to know must be the air that the POSTECH family breathes across all areas of the university – teaching and research, entrepreneurship and social contribution.

Let me use an analogy to convey more specifically the direction in which I believe POSTECH should be headed and the kind of talent that should be fostered here. A long time ago, I wrote a column with a title, “The Secret of the Thumb.” The thumb is a universal symbol of primacy, but it is actually shorter than all other fingers and does not have the support of the palm underneath it, so it is not much to look at when all five fingers are stretched out. So how did it become the symbol for primacy?

The reason is simple. It is because, unlike the other four fingers, the thumb faces in a different direction. It is not the size that matters, but the direction. Of all the animals, we call the forefeet of primates “hands.” What is the difference between a hand and a foot? Orientation of the thumb. If the thumb is in the same direction as all the other fingers, it’s just a big toe. If it’s in a different direction, it is a thumb. The difference between a hand and a foot is huge. Your feet are nothing more than a means of getting you around, but your hands can do everything. It was this different orientation of the thumb that allowed primates to become “masters of all things” by allowing them to grasp objects, make tools, and perform sophisticated tasks.

The same logic applies to organizations and societies. Leaders need to look elsewhere. If the leader does not look a different way, the group fails to be a hand and remains a foot. My generation was the product of a competitive era where, just as four fingers compete for size, the ultimate goal of education was to produce a competent person. However, it is now time to develop talent who look in other directions, just like the thumb. The future talent that POSTECH will produce must grow in their own direction and be irreplaceable by other people or even artificial intelligence. Our education and research should pursue POSTECH’s unique model based on this premise.

So, what should be the unique model of POSTECH? I picture a university that is open both inside and out. Blaming physical distance and geography would be a lame excuse in a 21st century society, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of their third year, one year before graduation, POSTECH undergraduates will have the opportunity to choose to experience either CES in the U.S. or Nobel Week in Sweden through a program offered here. In addition, off-campus education programs will allow students to complete a semester anywhere in the country or abroad, with no time or space limitations. I hope that these programs will help students envision themselves in the future and design their own tomorrows on the global stage. POSTECH’s graduate students will be provided with strong financial support, as well as opportunities to pursue dual or joint degree programs at leading universities abroad to broaden their horizons as they are exposed to different research environments and cultures.

Professors will be given more freedom to work abroad through off-campus programs and mini-sabbaticals, while the short-term hosting of international scholars is expected to strengthen their profile in the international academic community. We will also strengthen the respect and honor that professors deserve for their top positions in our knowledge-based society. As for the staff, we will provide support and self-development opportunities for them so they can grow into important resources for the university’s development, not just administrative service providers. The key to all these policies and systems is a globally universal direction and standard. POSTECH should be a university that is wide open both inside and out and, more importantly, open to the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

POSTECH may be small in size and short in history. But what determines the value of an institution is not its size, history, budget or geographical location, but its moral values and attitudes.

When you visit the United States, you will notice that each state has a slogan on its license plate that symbolizes that state. I lived in Boston in the state of Massachusetts, and its slogan is “The Spirit of America.” I think it is a fitting phrase for the birthplace of the American values of freedom and prosperity, tradition and future.

Then what would be the city that symbolizes the spirit of Korea, which I believe is the daring spirit of taking on challenges. Without it, we would not have been able to miraculously build the modern nation that we now live in after Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. I think the city that best symbolizes this spirit is Pohang, which has given birth to both a world-class industry and a world-class university from a barren land. Now, as we look forward to our 40th anniversary, we aspire to make a second leap onto the world stage, with POSTECH at the center of the Korean spirit.

I would like to share with you a quote from the author Andre Gide, which is one of my most favorite ones: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

POSTECH will now leave the familiar dock for a new voyage. There will be worries and fear, winds and waves. But I have no doubt that if the POSTECH family is of one mind, we will reach wonderful new seas by the end of this journey.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude once again to Chairman Jeong-Woo Choi of POSTECH Foundation and its board, Mayor of the City of Pohang Kang-deok Lee, other guests and the POSTECH family. POSTECH will need your support and encouragement as it embarks on this new voyage.

Thank you.

September 5th, 2023
9th President of POSTECH
Seong Keun Kim