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Controversy over ‘polifessors’ reemerges

Proponents value expertise, while opponents note negligence of teaching and research

Last month’s Seoul mayoral by-election has reignited the long-standing controversy over whether it is desirable for professors to engage in politics.

As they exerted sizable influence on the high-profile election using their popularity among relatively young voters, professors have straddled the thin line between politicians and scholars.

Seoul National University professor Ahn Cheol-soo has been at the center of the debate over “polifessors,” as his endorsement of independent candidate Park Won-soon is believed to have been critical to his victory.

SNU law professor Cho Kuk also capitalized on his 160,000 Twitter followers to help Park win the showdown between conservatives and liberals.

Ahn now poses a significant challenge to political heavyweights eying the presidential election next year although he has yet to confirm whether he will enter the race.

In some recent polls, the entrepreneur-turned-professor was even ahead of former Grand National Party chairwoman Park Geun-hye who had long been the indisputable frontrunner.

Some experts say that professors should be allowed to utilize their academic knowledge in the political field so as to enhance national interests.

“I don’t see any problem with professors engaged in politics as long as they have a well-established vision and will to reflect it in real politics. Just writing papers from their ivory tower has a limit in realizing their ideals,” Choi Han-soo, political science professor at Konkuk University, told The Korea Herald.

“The negative connotation ‘polifessor’ carries is apparently because of those who are opportunists, just wandering around the periphery of politics in pursuit of power. What counts is their attitude and mentality.”

Others cautioned against the possibility of “polifessors” neglecting their basic duties to study and teach. They also say that their “biased” political opinions could negatively affect their students.

“(In the past) professors have distanced themselves from politics while serving as a lamp to show our society a major direction it should take and refraining from appearing on the politician stage,” professor Park Jung-soo of Ewha Womans University told the Chosun Ilbo.

“This is because they had a sense of caution, apparently thinking that their words and deeds carrying biased political hues can bring about an undesirable effect on students who need balanced education.”

Some critics also pointed out that as most professors joining politics and public service take a long leave of absence from their schools, young scholars cannot find permanent positions despite the vacancies.

Universities appear to be reluctant to take them off their payrolls as their activities in high-profile public positions help promote their schools.

Professors have steadily made their way into politics with some serving as policy advisors and others joining the National Assembly. The number of candidates from academia for parliamentary elections was 52 in 1996, 55 in 2000, 72 in 2004 and 49 in 2008, according to the state election watchdog.

Students also have diverse views on the issue.

“It is a basic civil right to be able to make political remarks. It is not right to prevent professors or other famous people from participating in politics,” said Kwak Dong-keon, a 24-year-old student in Seoul.

“Though professors express their political thoughts during their lecture, university students do not just take them at face value. If you think so, it is an underestimation. When professors provide a variety of political discourses, students will judge them based on their own beliefs.”

Choi, a law college student who declined to give his full name, said that professors should prioritize research and teaching to fulfill their responsibilities in academia.

“One of my professors focuses too much on his political activities. Thus, his students, including myself, feel he has been negligent of his duty to teach and do research,” he said.

“Fortunately, his political views were quite similar to mine, so I was not offended. But many others with different views might have been annoyed when he expressed his views during his class.”

By Song Sang-ho (