In theory, anyone can become a chaebol through hard work and perseverance, but not everyone can inherit the chaebol title. The public does not criticize such practices, but instead tacitly approves of them. People envy the lives of geumsujeos, or the silver spoons who live off the wealth of their rich parents, rather than questioning such privilege. In fact, they aspire to become one too. The culture of hereditary succession of wealth is evident throughout numerous facets of Korean society. Today, this culture has spread to industries, business, politics, and even universities.
A new form of nepotism, which has plagued academia for centuries, has recently come under fire in Korea. It seems sneaking relatives and family members into prestigious university vocations was not enough; now, the ownership of entire universities is decided by hereditary succession. According to data released by congresswoman Park Kyung Mi, there are roughly 20 Korean private universities where ownership has been passed down through subsequent generations of the same family. In particular, the fourth succession has already been set in motion in the case of Korea University (KU) and Woosong University (WU), in which the great-grandsons of the university’s founders are now the chief director and director, respectively.
The succession of universities is highly discouraged because it has been empirically shown that the more a university is steeped in nepotism, the likelier it is to be embroiled in various scandals and fraudulent dealings. In the case of Myongji University (MU), former chairman Yoo Young Koo was sentenced to seven years of imprisonment after being found guilty of embezzling 72 billion won from the school’s corporation funds in 2012 and illegally supporting the Myongji construction bureau with 170 million won. As the ownership of the school is passed down along consecutive generations, the privatization of profits managed by the family would most likely lead to more severe corruption.
Some argue that the decision of succession is solely in the hands of the owner. The government or public should not interfere with their personal property, as losing the right to freely deal with private property would undermine the very character of a private institution. Additionally, the descendents may have been raised in an environment that inculcates in their minds the founder’s values and core mission. They could have even received prior training intended to groom them to be the most qualified to succeed the role, proponents of hereditary succession claim. Also, seeing as how the founder dedicated his life to establishing the institution, it may seem unfair to restrict his right to inherit his wealth and legacy to his own family.
However, it goes unsaid that in order for such succession to be considered legitimate, college education would have to be perceived as a product and students as clients. Universities are already being run using business models found in private enterprises, which encourages the university administration to place greater emphasis on the profitability of the organization rather than providing high quality education. Encouraging such a trend by accepting the legitimacy of hereditary succession may distort the fundamental goal of higher level education, which is to foster students’ academic development and civic awareness.
Even though private universities are entitled to property rights as private institutions, some light should be shed upon the detrimental effects of hereditary succession and exploitation of profits in order to tackle pervasive corruption in universities. In addition, it is extremely important to reflect back on the fundamental roles of universities. In response to the current lack of oversight, full-fledged legislative movements should take place and the Private School Law should be revised to strengthen the restrictions on the tradition of nepotism in universities. Through such means, private universities will better allocate resources to enhance the quality of education.