ON OCT. 1, 2019, Yonsei students gathered outside the Student Union Building in a public display of mourning. What was unusual about this event was that the students were not mourning for an actual person, but rather for the “death of the Spirit of Yonsei.” Attendants strongly opposed Yonsei University’s decision to relegate its newest course, “The Spirit of Yonsei and Human Rights,” from a required course to an elective. Despite its significance as the first comprehensive human rights course in Yonsei history, the new lecture has endured harsh criticism from a number of outside parties, including former alumni, ever since it was announced last August. Continued uncertainty regarding the future of the course has raised many questions regarding the implications of the school’s decision for Yonseians.
What is “The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights”?
On Dec. 21, 2017, Yonsei University and the National Human Rights Commission of the Republic of Korea signed an agreement requiring Yonsei to create a human rights education program. Adhering to this arrangement, Yonsei University announced on Aug. 6, 2019, that from 2020 onwards, all incoming freshmen must enroll in The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights, a one credit online course consisting of 13 lectures dealing with various aspects of human rights. Currently enrolled students would also have the opportunity to take the course as an elective.
The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights was made available to students this semester as a trial-run for its official release next spring. Enrolled students are required to watch a video lecture every week and are encouraged to share their thoughts on the material with other students on the class’s YSCEC (Yonsei Creative Education Community) forum. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Samuel Y. Pang (Prof., The Graduate School of Theology) said, “The initial impetus for the human rights class was that we wanted to teach students how to live together in spite of their differences. Yonsei University could be the last place where students are able to learn about and discuss what human rights are.” The new course also aims to continue Yonsei’s legacy of furthering human rights, as shown in its syllabus. Professor Pang said, “Yonsei was the first co-ed university in Korea and the first to accept butchers who were considered as the lowest class of people. As a university, we have always embraced the marginalized and the discriminated.” Taking those values into account, the course curriculum contains topics such as gender equity, fair labor laws, refugee protection, and ethics in communication.
Opposition to human rights education
Students’ reactions to the new course have been positive, as evidenced by the high popularity of the trial class. More than 2,400 students initially enrolled in the trial course, the largest number of applicants for a single class in Yonsei history. Kim Hyun-mi (Prof., Dept. of Anthropology), the lecturer for the gender equity section of the course, said, “Some of my students sent me personal e-mails saying that they really liked what I was teaching, especially the idea that everyone should be a protector of human rights.” Shin Nam-hee, (Sr., Dept. of Economics) of the Joint Measure Committee for the Establishment of The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights as a Requisite (hereby, Joint Measure Committee), said, “When our school first announced the course, I thought that it was a really good move because it showed that Yonsei took human rights very seriously.”
In contrast to Yonsei students’ generally positive opinion of the trial course, several opposition groups have formed in protest of the new class. On Aug. 13, 2019, Yeon-sa-mo, or “citizens who love Yonsei,” a group comprised of 40 Yonsei students, alumni, and parents held a press conference in front of the Main Gate, criticizing the new course. The protesters said that two lectures in the course, “Human Rights and Gender (Gender Equity),” and “Human Rights and Refugees,” were particularly problematic. In its official statement, Yeon-sa-mo claimed, “Gender and refugee education will promote a one-sided pro-homosexuality and pro-refugee rhetorics which discriminate against ordinary citizens.” The protesters also invoked the Christian roots of Yonsei University in their demands saying, “Yonsei University must adhere to its founding philosophies of Truth, Freedom and Christian spirit.” Besides Yeon-sa-mo, other conservative groups unrelated to Yonsei, such as the Freedom Korea National Defense Corps, have held similar protests.
Despite fierce opposition, Yonsei University initially maintained its plan to keep The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights as a mandatory course for incoming freshmen. On Sept. 10, 2019, the Office of Academic Affairs announced that The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights does not aim to support or promote any specific group or organization, further noting in its official statement that, “Consideration and protection of the socially disadvantaged are in line with the Christian teaching of ‘love thy neighbor.’” Professors and students adopted a similar stance. Professor Pang noted, “Yonsei’s founding philosophy is against discrimination and inequality. It is only natural that we listen to and promote the voices of those who are discriminated against.” Shin said, “[The protests] all seemed irrational. I did not once think that the school administration would change its mind.”
The unexpected move
On September 19, the school abruptly reversed its decision to make The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights a mandatory course. The move took many by surprise, especially in light of the administration’s steadfast position few days earlier. In the absence of any official statement explaining the new decision, many speculated that Yonsei had caved under pressure from external sources. Even professors teaching the course were not consulted or alerted ahead of the change. This was a confusing turn of events considering Professor Kim’s recollection that “no professor really demanded that it should be mandatory… it was the Office of Academic Affairs that came to us with the suggestion to make the course mandatory, asking for our consultation.” The news quickly attracted the attention of outside human and civil rights organizations who protested against the school’s decision through phone calls and e-mails.
On the 25th, a loose coalition of Yonsei graduates and students condemned the school’s decision by posting various posters and banners around campus. Within a similar timeframe, another group of concerned students formed the Joint Measure Committee, a student organization designed to efficiently mobilize student protests. Their manifesto condemned three aspects of the school’s decision: First, the school’s actions demonstrated its lack of concern for the importance of human rights education; second, its actions failed to show respect for student’s rights; third, the process by which the decision was made was highly unilateral and therefore lacking in legitimacy. In what was the first consolidated effort to publicly condemn the Yonsei administration, the organization put forth a massive petition containing 2,794 signatures from members of the Yonsei community and other organizations. On October 1, the Joint Measure Committee held a public rally in front of the Student Union Building together with organizations such as Yonsei Co-Op Student Organization, Guernica*, Come Together**, and QUV***.
Attempts at administrative stonewalling were made increasingly apparent as the situation progressed. On October 14, the Joint Measure Committee publicly relayed five sets of questions to the five potential candidates in the university presidential election. Only Seo Kil-soo (Prof., Dept. of Business) responded. Even then, the professor avoided giving any direct opinion, opting instead to give a politically neutral response, stating that Yonsei has always “embraced the marginalized.” Similarly, despite repeated phone calls and emails sent to the Yonsei administration by the committee, no official explanation was forthcoming—apart from interviews conducted with Kyunghyang Shinmun and Pressian. In both interviews, however, the school expressed its belief that the criticism was “unfounded” and that the observers “assumed” that the university’s decision was a result of external pressure. Clarifying this position in a written interview with the Annals, the Office of Academic Affairs added that it specifically did not want to rush into creating a mandatory course when it expected to undergo various further changes such as amending the syllabus or the YSCEC feedback system. They then re-emphasized that no external groups have had an impact on this change.
As a member of the Joint Measure Committee, Shin relayed her frustration with the entire fiasco. “[The school] previously defended [the course] by citing the founding principles of the school,” Shin argued, “If they are going to flip their position so easily, then how do they expect the students to have faith in the school?” She also pointed out that the assumption of external influence in the internal decision-making process was not entirely unfounded. Christian Today, a conservative religious press, published an article on September 19 stating that a text message was sent on the same day to Dr. Yum An-sup, one of the critics of the school’s decision, alerting him of the fact that the school had reversed its decision. Many students noted that the article was published early in the afternoon, prior to the school’s notification to its students. The discovery of this information seemingly contradicted the school’s claim that no external influence was involved in their decision-making, as the school would have had no obligation to notify an outside party under normal circumstances.
The Joint Measure Committee further explained that the school’s handling of the situation was significant not only because of the change in course status but also due to its broader implications on educational policy. The Joint Measure Committee claims that the administration’s decision sets a dangerous precedent in which the school readily “capitulates to the demands of external forces” and “ignores student opinion.” While some individuals find certain aspects of the committee’s criticism, namely its future implications, to be somewhat far-fetched, Professor Pang said, “Even during the military dictatorship, [Yonsei wasn’t] pressurized to… compromise on the contents of its education.” That being said, the two professors interviewed by the Annals expressed their belief that students’ reactions were quite understandable. They pointed to the fact that the very purpose of the course “trial-run” in the fall semester was to gauge students’ receptiveness and incorporate their feedback. Professor Kim concluded by saying, “It is understandable that students would have felt disappointed by the school… and for foreign students [in Yonsei] coming from more progressive cultures with an understanding that refugee and gender issues are not anti-Christian, what would they think of the fact that in Korea these issues are taboos and cannot even be discussed or studied...? Why is it that people outside of school have a say over what a school can teach and not teach?”
The future of The Spirit of Yonsei & Human Rights is still up for debate. Aside from the decision to set the course as elective for the incoming freshmen of 2020, the possibility for further revision remains. Professor Pang revealed that unbeknownst to many of the students, faculty members have set up a committee amongst themselves to discuss the course and ensure that certain changes will be made.
Possible changes under review include increasing the course workload and adding a few additional subjects to the existing syllabus. Further amendments may also be considered in response to student feedback. In addition to English subtitles, which Professor Pang himself ensured, he expects that the course will add other language subtitles and hopefully become a benchmark for other courses in Yonsei. “Hopefully we [can] add Chinese, Japanese, or Spanish subtitles,” he said. Student action has also been successful in making alterations to the course. Through the Yonsei Disability Center, student efforts led to the creation of Korean subtitles for the online lectures so that deaf students could also enroll.
Finally, Professor Pang did not preclude the possibility of once again changing course’s current elective status. While the current decision is not the administration's final ruling, Professor Pang hinted at the procedural difficulty that presents an obstacle to reinstating the mandatory status. “We are in a limbo stage…[because] it is very political,” he said. According to Professor Kim, the professors are far from unified in their position. Many seem to believe that it is ultimately the Office of Academic Affairs’ decision “whether it is mandatory or elective” and that both decisions are “well within their rights” to decide through internal rulings.
Regardless of the difficulty that lies ahead, the Joint Measure Committee has promised to be active until the course is made mandatory again, making it likely that the controversy will continue. They plan to send a letter to the newly elected president, Suh Seoung-Hwan (Prof., Dept. of Economics), and focus its efforts on increasing student awareness to maintain the momentum of the movement. Regardless of the eventual outcome, it has been noted that the Joint Measure Committee, composed of handful of Yonsei students, has successfully spearheaded a campaign that demonstrated the collective determination of the Yonseian community in preserving Yonsei values and promoting universal human rights. When asked whether he was disheartened by the daunting task of the committee or its relatively small size, Professor Pang responded with effusive optimism. “I expected nothing less from Yonsei students…they represent a small but significant voice,” Professor Pang said, “Small numbers of people can change the world.”
*Guernica: Yonsei advocacy organization for human rights for people with disabilities
**Come Together: Yonsei advocacy organization for sexual minorities
***QUV: Multi-university advocacy organization for LGBTQ community