A part-time instructor in her 40s killed herself out of disappointment about her failure to get a job as a college professor. Korean-Americans in Austin, Texas, said the woman’s 16-year-old daughter found her groaning after taking pills at a motel there on Feb. 27. She was taken to hospital but died.
As a part-time instructor, the woman, identified as Han, taught English at a South Korean university identified as K. In a suicide note, she said she worked and studied hard for her dream to become a professor. But she realized that something other than academic accomplishment and lecture experience determines who gets tenure.
After graduating from Seoul National University of Education, Han worked as an elementary school teacher and obtained a doctoral degree in English education from the University of Texas-Austin in 2003. After she returned to Korea, Han worked as a part-time instructor at several colleges, landing the job at K in 2006 on a one-year contract basis.
As a non-regular employee, this year was the last chance for her to continue teaching at the college before the college either hired her full-time or let her go. In the suicide note, Han said the school took advantage of her status and forced her to sign a contract that benefits only the school. In the last semester, the calculation of mandatory classes that instructors have to teach during one semester was changed from 12 hours per week to 12 points per week, where two hours constitute one point, but the school refused to pay extra wages.
Disillusioned by the university’s “inconsistent, unfair treatment” of employees, Han said she finally found her long-cherished peace in Austin. A hospital in the Texan city said Han had bought her daughter new clothes, a new bag and new sneakers the day before the suicide and took the girl around the University of Texas-Austin.
A sloppy piece with few facts and little information. (So she died in Austin?) It did include this ambiguous last line:
The Korean university said it had paid her extra wages later.
After she died?
Nevertheless, a sad story, and the article reads more like an indictment of the professor racket than a news piece. I have no first hand knowledge what that "something other than academic accomplishment and lecture experience determines who gets tenure" might be, and I'm not going to speculate without facts or leads.
According to a 2007 Chosun Ilbo article, South Korea had the highest suicide rate among the 30 member-nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 24.7 cases out of 100,000 people. (The World Health Organization and Wikipedia---based on WHO stats---give different numbers, but they are neither complete nor reliable.) Based on this International Herald Tribune article, it looks like that number was from 2005. That same Chosun Ilbo article said suicide rates were 6.8 per 100,000 in 1982, and "the leading cause of death for people in their 20s and 30s was suicide."
The Chosun Ilbo and IHT articles I linked will give a little background on suicide in South Korea, as will a google search. For information about suicide among Korean students, have a look at this Gusts of Popular Feeling post. Matt from Popular Gusts has another excellent, informative post on suicide here, one which deals primarily with a 16-year-old girl who, after losing a great deal of weight and appearing alongside pop group "Super Junior" on TV, was driven to suicide by cyberbullying and preexisting depression. And another 2007 Chosun Ilbo article has some information about suicide among elderly citizens.
Like I said I'm not knowledgable about what goes on in Korean universities. A quick Google search mostly turned up stuff about academic fraud, which I guess is pretty telling. For a look at how foreign professors are often treated, have a look at this post from The Marmot's Hole, which has translated a piece that ran in the Sisa Journal in September, 2007. An excerpt of Mr. Koehler's post:
Foreign professors are also being discriminated against in terms of hours and wages. Prof. Gabriel (fake name), who teaches at a certain university, said Korean professors teach an average of seven hours a week, while the foreign professors teach at least 12 hours. Prof. Karlson (fake name), who teaches at another university, said there were differences in wages, too, although he could reveal specific amounts. He also said Korean professors get bonuses such as research fees, but he didn’t know a single foreign professor getting such bonuses. He claimed that Korean professors get all sorts of allowances that foreign professors could only dream about. Prof. Michelle, who majored in Australian literature, said there was even one foreign professor who was earning only 2.2 million won a month teaching 20 hours a week. The professor eventually returned to the United States out of dissatisfaction with his pay.
So I don't know what "something other than academic accomplishment and lecture experience determines who gets tenure" might be, but judging from foreign lecturers' experiences, the right skin color is essential.
I was just about to type that the late Ms. Han's academic background (Seoul National University, University of Texas at Austin) would help her stand out from the competition, but out of curiosity I decided to have a look at the faculty teaching English Education at a few local universities. Her background is fairly ordinary. As a matter of fact, two of the six Korean professors of English Education at Chonnam National University in Gwangju graduated with advanced degrees from the University of Texas at Austin. In the same university's Department of English Literature, 9 of the 12 Korean professors earned a degree in the US, two of them from the University of Texas at Austin.
Incidentally, via the UTA Korean Student Association I found a link to a YTN video news report on the professor's death. I don't understand it, but have a look if you can understand Korean.
Update 1, March 23, 2008: Here's an update of sorts from last Saturday's Austin American-Statesman in an article titled "Hospital staff help stranded Korean teen":
On their last day together, a Korean mother visiting Austin with her daughter showed the 16-year-old the University of Texas, where she had earned a doctorate in foreign language education in 2003.
She took the teen shopping at the outlets, buying her clothes and a backpack. They went to a Korean restaurant and a pizza buffet.
On Feb. 27 at age 43, the mother died at the hospital. A letter was found. Her daughter, who didn't speak English, was alone, dealing with her mother's suicide.
From the 911 call from the hotel room to the time she got on a plane back to Korea, Kayoung Lee was embraced by the staff at St. David's Medical Center. Local Korean churches raised money for her flight home and for her mother's cremation.