Kim: We need to communicate better


Senior Photo Editor

President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim is approaching the end of his second year in his role. Kim has been criticized for not meeting with student protesters during a May 1 protest led by SaveColumbia, a coalition of campus community members that aims to combat tuition increases and large class sizes.

By Editor-in-Chief

Nearly a week after SaveColumbia, a coalition of students, staff and faculty protesting recent administrative actions and the Strategic Plan, launched a picket and held a sit-in on the 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building’s fifth floor—the floor that houses several administrative offices, including that of president and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim—a petition calling for the board of trustees to vote “No Confidence” in Kim and Provost Stan Wearden has gathered more than 200 signatures. 

The protest marks the end of Kim’s second year at his post. From leading the college in drafting the Strategic Plan to filling the once-vacant positions of his cabinet, Kim’s second year on the job has been a year of change—change that has sparked support and contention from all facets of the campus community. 

The Chronicle had the chance last week to sit down and talk with Kim about SaveColumbia and its demands, the Strategic Plan and his vision of the college’s future.

THE CHRONICLE: Looking back at the year, is there anything you wish you had done differently? What accomplishment are you most proud of?

KWANG-WU KIM: I am proud of the fact that we built the Strategic Plan. What will happen over time is people will see how, as this plan opens up and is implemented, many things at this school will continue to develop and evolve and get better and [become] more valuable to students. Parts that I would do differently again—I realize since I’ve been here, a lot of things have been moving fast. New people arriving, new ideas out there, new structures being tested. I realize as an administration we have not been clear and regular enough in our communication….That’s what I have been thinking about. Moving forward, how many ways can we effectively communicate what is going on and how to help the college absorb all of these changes.

Looking at the college’s financial state, how responsible is the previous administration compared to your own?

One of the fundamental realities of our college is the financial challenge that comes from so many years of declining enrollment—we’ve had seven years of declining enrollment…. During that same period of time, although revenue was decreasing, the college didn’t do too much to adjust its spending. By the time I got here, there was a significant gap between spending and revenue…. It is honest to say that I inherited that situation. We’ve been working really hard to address it in a number of ways: controlling spending, having to make some tough decisions along those lines, really working hard to turn enrollment around while at the same time not just working arbitrarily to turn enrollment around but determining the right size of the school. What is frustrating for me [and] also for other people, too, is enrollment. All of these things take a couple of years before they take hold. 

What is your general response to the SaveColumbia protest and sit-in?

One of the things that were being chanted [outside of the 600 S. Michigan Ave. Building] before the students and faculty moved [to the fifth floor] for the sit-in was “No tuition, no fees/ Education must be free.” I heard that from [my] office. That was a very extreme position. It begs a lot of interesting questions. If education is free, does that mean faculty should teach for free? There are a lot of things that as soon as I heard [them], I thought, “What is this protest really about?” When I look at the demands that SaveColumbia put forth, some of the demands are clearly from student concerns … clearly there was concern about class size and I blame [the administration] for that one because we didn’t explain well what we were doing. Of the eight demands, four were very much focused on part-time faculty, which concerns me because we also have full-time faculty…. For me, the fundamental question in my mind is if the name of the protest is “SaveColumbia,” you have to be able to say, “From what?” And if it’s personally directed at me, fine. If people don’t like me, I can deal with that. But if it is save Columbia from President Kim, what have I done that people think Columbia needs saving from? … [Protesters] thought [the protest] would trigger an automatic meeting with me. I did meet with [SaveColumbia] on April 20 at the last meeting of The Strategic Planning Steering Committee. SaveColumbia basically invited itself to the meeting and … they had the floor for over an hour. That is where they presented their demands in writing. Everyone who came in with something to say was given the opportunity to speak. I heard them, but … who am I responding to if I respond to SaveColumbia’s demands? … It’s just a group that has put itself together, which I respect, but we have to recognize what it is and what it isn’t in terms of an official response. I will say some of the things they ask for, I agree with. They want greater transparency with the school’s budget, which we have already talked about our commitment to develop.

Following the protest, a petition calling for the board of trustees to vote ‘No Confidence’ was circulated. How do you respond to that?

None of us knows currently if the group we saw last week both picketing and sitting in is representative of a much larger group. We have no indication that it is. Similarly with this petition, no confidence votes in higher education are usually taken by the governing body of the faculty. [The petition] feels like a gesture…. If Student Government came to me and said, “The vast majority of students are extremely unhappy about the fact that you’re president,” that would really bother me.

Why did you not go out and meet the student protesters?

It creates the message that if you want to talk to the president, stage a sit-in and he will talk to you. I don’t think that is correct. To me, it is two different things. Yes, you can protest—you can stage a sit-in. That is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. That’s not how governance of an institution like this works…. Just because a group forms itself doesn’t mean it has any particular access. I did speak to them, just not at

the sit-in. 

A lot of students have asked why tuition cannot be capped. Is there a reason?

We have to remember that since we are a tuition-driven institution like most educational institutions in the United States … it’s not only about meeting existing costs. If we are trying to make the school better, there are new costs. What I try to explain to students who ask me the question of “Why can’t you cap tuition at the year students enter?” [is] the fact that certain costs are not fixed and because we have no other guaranteed revenue stream. 

What are your thoughts on their use of the word “demand”?

The problem with [a] word like “demand” is it doesn’t really invite a conversation. This was not only a statement of demand, it was a deadline. The start of the demonstration was portrayed as “the administration did not respond to us by our deadline.” Generally speaking, I never respond to demands…. We can talk. The conversation about tuition is a big conversation. I am constantly talking about it with the board. We are very aware that affordability is a major concern for our students, but a demand … reduces the conversation to a yes or no, and these things are too complicated for that

How would you characterize the Strategic Plan?

If someone said, “In a few sentences, reduce what you think the Strategic Plan is about,” I would say it is about examining and redefining content to make this school more valuable to students and that the financial model supports that. The most significant thing in the plan is the curriculum. Is what we are teaching our students truly what they need to learn in order to be successful? … Is the way the school is functioning supporting that? I don’t think anything at this school is not good, but I know that almost everything can be a lot better. That’s true anywhere. That’s what I feel the students deserve.

Was the First-Year Seminar program elimination handled properly?

It was dramatic and abrupt. It was a big gesture to significant student concern. That was a decision where—I am not pointing fingers or placing blame, I never want to be seen as doing that—the provost and his team really felt it was the best way to do it. I felt I needed to support the decision. I take the responsibility. I actually believe that FYS needs a major rethink. If we could go back and do this again, or if we did this the same way, I would have liked for there to have been more communication with the college in advance. I think that piece was missing. Even if it made people unhappy, it is something that I think could have been explained better. We had over 10 years [of negative] feedback [of FYS]…. When I heard about the data, I thought, if we are going to something significant, let’s start somewhere  we know for a fact that there is a significant amount of student dissatisfaction. The only thing I regret is that it seems to have been one of the triggers for what we are seeing now. What I learned is that it is just important to keep communicating.

Looking toward the future, where do you want the college to be, financially and academically?

What I hope to see in a couple years is [the college] in a very different enrollment situation so that we are much more stable, so that the college once again feels like a more resource-rich place than it does right now. I want to see the planning for the student center complete and progress toward making that a reality. I understand that things feel like they are being squeezed right now, but we are doing this so we can [go] back to having more to work with. I hope that over the next couple of years, we get better at telling our story so that our reputation keeps rising. 

Is there anything you would like to say to the college community?

I believe in this college and that we occupy a special place in this world and that the way to advance is to focus on the question of “How do we bring the most value to our students?” and that is what I am going to keep focusing on.