In the fall of 2016, fierce winds howled around the huddled students of Korea University (KU), seeking to disperse the voices calling for a better tomorrow. However, their resolve was as solid as rock, and they refused to give up their duty as Korea’s leading young intellectuals. At the forefront of the fight against a corrupt government was the student association. In the fall of 2017, just one year later, quite a different picture is staring KU in the face. The firm bond of trust between the student body and the student association has broken, and skepticism has started to fill its place.
The Highlight Fiasco
Throughout October, a giant scandal shook the four thousand students of the College of Liberal Arts. On October 19, a poster was put up at the West Gate accusing Highlight, the student association for the College of Liberal Arts, of an abuse of power. One of the main accusations on the poster concerned a certain student—referred to repeatedly as Student A—who worked as a member of the election board for Highlight without being fully qualified. With Student A, the fall of Highlight began.
There were many questions posed about the qualifications of Student A. Student A had once issued an official apology for a blunder he made as vice president of the former student association; this incident again rose to the surface when Highlight asked for the approval of their executives. Student A was not put forward for approval, which was granted despite the dissatisfaction of Kim Min Kyung, the student president of the College of Liberal Arts. Her attempt to reverse this agreement led to conflict with the Steering Committee of the College of Liberal Arts.
With the exhausting argument going nowhere, the second semester arrived. President Kim again tried to gain the approval of her executives, unsurprisingly revised to include Student A, alongside the budget plan, and reports on the activities of Highlight. Her overreaching led all three items to be rejected and deprived fellow students of a functioning student association. A proper explanation was not given to the student body.
Suddenly, Highlight’s former Chief Executive Lee made an emotional post expressing his disappointment in the rejection on Highlight’s official Facebook page. The post went viral among KU students, and Highlight’s president promised to post an explanation, but nothing appeared until November 2. The late and insufficient explanation disappointed the students, which eventually called for impeachment. Nobody took responsibility for this silence, and no proper apology was made. While the student executive engaged in an unnecessary feud, the students they needed to represent were left bewildered and disappointed.
Student Associations: Do We Really Need Them?
With the whole fiasco surrounding Highlight, skepticism among the student body against student associations has strengthened. Many students have already begun to turn their back on the Korea University Student Association (KUSA), but the student associations of individual colleges and departments have also begun to lose the trust of their students. For instance, Saerok-Saerok, the student association for the College of Political Science and Economics, has faced heavy criticism for their projects.
There have been complaints about the forceful feminist guidelines of Saerok-Saerok, with many feeling that they are redundant, unnecessarily strict, and off-point, which paint a rather negative image of feminism. Naturally, there have been voices claiming that the actions and projects of this student association do not address students’ needs. An Hyung Joon (’13, Korean Language and Literature), who has posted several notices regarding this incident, also shared his disappointment regarding the Highlight issue.
▲ PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHO EUN BYUL. An Hyung Joon
An views the purpose of a student association to be to represent the needs of the students and protect them from systemic injustice. For him, the recent performance of the student association of the College of Liberal Arts has been a resounding failure. “The Steering Committee is responsible for canceling all of the welfare services. As for ignoring student representatives, which amounts to shutting out the needs of the students, Highlight’s President Kim is accountable,” said An. He added, “They were all too focused on their own interests, so they ended up forgetting what is truly important.”
However, when it came to the question of the total abolishment of student associations, An disapproves. Regardless of the poor performance of Highlight and Saerok-Saerok, he still admits that there is no alternative to student associations in the role of representing and protecting the students. “Without them, who will fight the school for us? Who will represent the rights of minorities? The students cannot do this by themselves.” It is still through the existence of these associations that students can speak out to the school or to society.
To Rebuild the Burnt Bridges
If abolishment is not an answer, the true question will be how the student associations can regain the students’ confidence. Although distrust has firmly taken root between students and their representatives, it is not irreversible, and communication may be the solution. The reason student associations promise communication every election is that trust can neither be established nor maintained without sincere, serious discussion. Despite failing to deliver, the situation calls for them to treat this promise as something separate from typical politician pledges. KU needs an environment where students can freely convey their thoughts, and more importantly, be listened to.
Of course, communication cannot begin when only one side is prepared for it. The students’ growing indifference towards student politics has been a consistent issue over the years. The decreasing turnouts for KUSA has been a major topic in recent student meetings, which was why they have tried to add a minimum turnout limit. This limit was proposed to stimulate the election boards to campaign harder for a higher turnout, but some were concerned that like Yonsei University (YU)—which currently does not have a student association—the decreasing turnouts will prevent KU from establishing a strong student association. A healthy and functioning student association runs on the interest of the students it represents; only with their interest can the student associations once again prove their worth and put an end to the skepticism.