The president of South Korea’s leading university was trapped in his office almost overnight on Friday when a group of staff and students staged a protest outside his door to demand a role in the school’s process of gaining independence from state control.
Some 400 staff and students at Seoul National University sat in the hallway outside President Oh Yeon-cheon’s office for almost 12 hours until 3:30 a.m., demanding their right to take part in the school’s controversial independence process.
SNU was founded as a national university in 1946 and later became the country’s most prestigious educational institution, which carries many social benefits for its graduates. After much social debate and resistance from opposition parties, the ruling Grand National Party in December railroaded a bill endorsing the university’s independence in order to raise the school’s efficiency and global competitiveness.
Under the new system, SNU will be run by a board of directors that elects the president and includes people from outside the school. Staff will no longer be paid as civil servants, and will instead be paid under a separate annual salary system that includes performance-based pay. All state and public property, such as the school’s buildings and land, will be handed over for free while government funding continues at similar levels. The university will also be free from government control to conduct commercial projects.
Such measures have, however, met fierce backlash from political and other opponents who fear the school’s commercialization, higher tuition fees and damage to the public nature of education, among other fears.
The protesters in front of the president’s office were part of a committee launched last year to oppose the move. During the sit-in, they demanded that the university include a member of the school’s labor union in its preparation committee or ensure their right to select a member of the board of directors.
“In his meeting with a representative of the labor union, President Oh pulled out a towel stained with blood to show that he had bled due to his poor health,” said a university official. “But they still wouldn’t stop the blockade.”
Oh’s glasses fell off his face at one point during a minor scuffle between a school employee and a union member, he said.
Commenting on his reason for ending the blockade, a union member said, “The university fully understood our demands and agreed to continue discussions. From now on, we will not block the hallway, but we will go on a hunger strike to continue our protest.”