- 136th Anniversary Commemorative Address 2021.05.08
May 8, 2021
President Seoung Hwan Suh
Greetings to our esteemed Yonsei family.
Today we celebrate the 136th anniversary of the founding of Yonsei University. We are once again sorry that we are not able to have all of you—from members of the Board of Trustees and sponsors of the University to students, faculty, and alumni—gather together on this lovely spring day, filling the campus with laughter and joy. I am especially sad that we will not have the 25th and 50th year alumni back on campus to commemorate their milestone reunions. We hope to extend another opportunity to alumni to visit campus in October, if the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation improves. Until that day, when I hope you will be able to enjoy the renovated Cheongsong Garden and Miwu Hall as you revisit your memories from college, I hope you will all stay safe and in good health. I am especially sorry that we have not been able to welcome the freshman Class of 2021 to our International Campus. That the global pandemic has kept our campuses empty and kept our learning virtual for three semesters is beyond anything we could have imagined. Today, before I give my commemorative remarks, I would first like to wish all of you the best in health and safety.
Last year, when I was inaugurated as the 19th President of Yonsei University, I noted that university education had reached a “tipping point.” At that time, I considered higher education in Korea to be “at an inflection point, in which a phenomenon would progress marginally until reaching a certain point, thereafter explosively changing in a particular direction.” We have been predicting a decline in the school-age population, increased global competition in education and research, the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the financial difficulties of a long-term tuition freeze, but none of us could foresee that the coronavirus would trigger unprecedented change at dizzying speed. The global pandemic led to a great self-assessment on the part of universities. Virtual learning challenged the idea that college education was based upon in-classroom interaction. Freedom of movement, regarded as a basic premise of global education and research, was curtailed as air travel became restricted, and student study abroad as well as faculty international conferences all came to a halt.
In the face of these difficulties, however, I cannot help but thank God’s grace in protecting our university. The words of Psalm 91:3, promising that “Surely He will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence,” have been with us for the past year. While many universities face great difficulties in these times, Yonsei has been taking the challenges of COVID as a special opportunity to re-build ourselves for the future. Despite the dampening of all activity due to COVID, we were able to raise 100 billion won in donations last year. Yonsei once again showed resilience in times of crisis, and we have managed to overcome the expected losses in our operating budget. This is entirely due to the community spirit shared by every member of Yonsei, from trustees to faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
From the time I was a candidate for Yonsei’s president, I have been calling for a fundamental change in our paradigm for higher education. Yonsei’s greatest asset in its 136-year-old tradition as a prestigious private institution is its wealth of human resources comprised of “innovative leaders with community spirit,” and we need a new paradigm in order to showcase and capitalize upon these strengths. To this end, this semester we launched our innovative, cloud-based digital education platform called LearnUs, which is in use right now for our degree programs. We are preparing to launch LearnUs for the general public in August, with additional features to make Yonsei the first institution of higher education in Korea to offer an international “open online education platform.” This new education platform will serve as an “open knowledge channel,” where Yonsei lectures can be shared with outside users, and universities and experts around the world can come together to share their expertise. Sixteen universities in Korea have already announced their intention to join with Yonsei in LearnUs, and I am confident that Yonsei will take leadership as we open a new chapter in the history of higher education in Korea. Moreover, we are expanding the Yonsei Signature Cluster Project 5/6/7 to optimize support for exceptional researchers. In addition, our endowment strategy will shift from preserving funds and only using interest income to a method of “utilizing funds” in ways more appropriate for our era of globally low interest rates.
In this year’s anniversary address, I would like to depart from tradition to make a suggestion for our government and education authorities. I believe this proposal not only addresses practical problems within the university, but also holds the key to the future of Korean society.
As I speak, the global community is hopeful that the new vaccines will be our solution to emerge from the COVID pandemic. We know that one of the vaccines currently in use, AstraZeneca, was made in collaboration with the University of Oxford. We also know that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, possibly more effective than the AstraZeneca one, are hoped to be the means of leading us out of the pandemic. How, then, did these vaccines come about?
Hungarian scientist Dr. Katalin Karikó had been researching a new form of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine since the 1990s. However, Dr. Karikó was unable to obtain research grants from any pharmaceutical companies because her research was deemed to be of little commercial value. In the absence of corporate funding, the institution that funded Dr. Karikó’s research was the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Karikó received five years’ worth of funding from University of Pennsylvania, beginning in 1990. She achieved no results during this time but the University of Pennsylvania continued its funding. Finally, in 2005, Dr. Karikó succeeded in identifying the basic principles of messenger RNA vaccines. It took more than a decade of funding by the University of Pennsylvania to make possible the mRNA vaccine. The patent to Dr. Karikó’s mRNA research is currently held by BioNTech, a codeveloper of the Pfizer vaccine. At Moderna, a Boston-based pharmaceutical company, Harvard Medical School researchers built upon commercial implications of Dr. Karikó’s mRNA research. My reason for this long story is simple. Basic research conducted at universities does not often yield immediate results, since such research is not immediately linked to commercial success. But without the decade-plus funding from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Karikó’s research would have never seen the light of day. Other universities such Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Harvard University contributed to the commercial development of Karikó’s research. It is thanks to universities who supported basic research for many years that we now look forward to vaccines that may end our pandemic.
Universities in Korea are suffering from years of financial deficit. As I witness universities face increasing financial pressure because of COVID, I cannot help but worry about the future of our country. Without basic research in universities, our society will face a future of great uncertainty. I ask the government and education authorities to think carefully about how public funding can support the autonomy and efficacy of university research. Universities are crucibles of basic research that are not just hallowed halls of academic excellence, but also a nation’s insurance for the uncertainties of the future. Countries with strong support for basic research will lead the future.
In the 136 years since its founding, Yonsei University has fulfilled the mission of casting off darkness in according with the Matthew 5:14 verse, “You are the light of the world.” Despite the pall that COVID casts over the globe, Yonsei will lead innovation in new educational media and continue our mission of lux in tenebris, light in darkness. As we commemorate the 136th anniversary of the founding of Yonsei, we are reminded of our mission yet again through the words of John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome.”
Despite the pandemic, Yonsei will carry forward its vision for truth and freedom. We thank the Lord for serving as the owner of Yonsei University for 136 years, for giving us courage and hope, and for leading us into the future. Thank you.