Growing Education: George Mason University Looks Forward to Continuous Growth, Academic Innovation | BusinessKorea

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Dr. Steven Lee, president of George Mason University Korea, speaks with Business Korea about his university's growth on July 27, 2016.
Dr. Steven Lee, president of George Mason University Korea, speaks with Business Korea about his university's growth on July 27, 2016.
Songdo, South Korea
9 August 2016 - 9:30am
Matthew Weigand

Business Korea sat down with Dr. Steven Lee, president of George Mason University (GMU) Korea, at his office in Incheon Global Campus in Songdo, South Korea. We asked him about the growth of the school and his long-term vision and the institution’s progress in its 2.5 years of operations. He shared with us his road map for the innovative education of students from all throughout Asia who attend the growing university. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

Q: Lets talk about yourself first. What is your educational philosophy? And as president of George Mason University Korea, what is your strategy for the future development of the school?

A: I was CEO of USC Korea, in Seoul, before I assumed this position last year. I held that position six years as the founding CEO. USC, as you know, is a comprehensive private research university in Los Angeles.

Access is one part of my philosophy and, particularly in this modern day, global access is an important one. Traditionally, campuses have been within boundaries, meaning students come to the campus rather than campuses reaching out. With the advent of global activities, universities of higher education must be able to provide greater access to the global population. Access is important for GMU. Having this campus in Korea allows access to students all over the world and East Asia in particular.

The other one is that we are starting to move away from knowledge-based education. People are focused on developing their own knowledge. But as you know, knowledge doesn’t always translate to being able to fulfill one’s obligations and responsibilities at the society level. So what I hope to share with our students and faculty that we serve is to focus more on the wisdom aspect of our education. Developing the appropriate character and social responsibility will help the graduates of GMU Korea become integral members of society, working not only for one’s own benefit but the benefit of the community that he or she is associated with and also the global community. Knowledge can be obtained easily through the internet and what you find there may be more accurate than what you find in the classroom. We move away from imparting simple knowledge and to developing the appropriate character and virtue to make that difference in the world.

One of the shortcomings of higher education is that colleges are reactive to what society’s needs are. CEOs of companies are criticizing colleges for being unable to make that adjustment. We need to work with companies as institutions and as partners, meaning students need to be engaged in companies before graduating. During the course of 4 years of participation in the educational experience of GMU Korea they should undergo some experience in working with companies so that they do not get surprised after 4 years when transitioning from being a student to being a member of an organization or company.

So, in addition to academics, experience is critical for many students. Academics they get in the classroom, but they need experience to become socially adaptable. In Korea, for example, it takes 2 or 3 years for college grads to find a job, then they often quit the job after a few years. Poor knowledge and inability to make the adjustment from being a student to a member of an organization are contributing factors. And, attached to that is a lack of happiness and reward for doing what you do in the workplace. So these things need to be developed while in college.

Q: Are GMU Korea students doing those things now?

A: We are focused on internship experience, both internal and external. We have partnerships with a dozen organizations and companies. This summer we have students working as interns here in Korea and in the United States. My hope is that we can expand to more countries so that our students are well prepared for new environments almost anywhere else in the world.

In terms of pedagogy, we are moving away from a simple lecture style where a professor is giving information and a student is asked to respond and to recall. We want an active classroom where students are also engaged in asking questions.

Q: What is your priority for George Mason University Korea and how will you apply your experience to improve the school?

A: We are making a student-oriented institution so that goal is focused in making students do well. We have yet to graduate students, but we will have them very soon. Our goal is to have them leave the institution with a high level of confidence, competency and good character. We very much value serving our students all of our faculty are very much involved in advising and mentoring students. Unlike some other universities where professors are simply teachers in the classroom, our professors are very much involved in the lives our students. The faculty to student ratio is good. Our professors come from diverse backgrounds. And students report a positive experience form working with our staff here. So diversity is more than just a word, students are getting it in the classroom. They are seeing experienced professionals who have gone through that experience personally outside of Korea.

Q: How many students are enrolled this year? Also, what is your current student-to-professor ratio, and what is your ultimate goal for student enrollment?

A: We saw 250 students enrolled last semester and we have 24 faculty, so that’s about 10 to 1. To add to that, my hope is that upon graduating from GMU Korea they will have a very high placement rate. I think that’s very possible. I think that our students are very active, outgoing, competent individuals, and so that is another important goal to make sure that we have a high employment rate. Also I would imagine many of our students would be interested in going on to graduate school. Developing partnerships with some of the graduate schools in Korea, to have a pathway program for our students to be able to transfer and continue at a graduate university here in Korea. We are also working with some universities in the U.S., so that should our students be interested in pursuing some graduate studies in the U.S. they would be able to do it as well.

Our goal is to reach 2000. We have been open since the spring of 2014. We have been here for 5 semesters, and are entering the sixth in the fall.

Q: Your program includes two semesters in the Fairfax campus in the U.S. When will you send students there?

A: We have students already in Fairfax, and will continue to do so. One quarter of our students will be there at any given semester, but of course as there are different numbers that enter each semester that would vary from semester to semester. In addition to the 2 semester experience in the U.S., we hope to provide an opportunity for them to study and live in a third country, beyond Korea and the U.S., perhaps in China. So maybe our students could spend another semester in a third country. So it could really become a multinational experience for our students.

Q: Are you just considering China?

A: No, that is just one of the considerations, but we hope to provide access to other countries as well. GMU has partnerships with other countries around the world, so we hare hoping to tap into that resource and partner up in Asia, Europe, and other exotic places as well. This would be an added experience for our students.

Q: Is George Mason University Korea’s education similar to what is offered at its Fairfax campus in the U.S.? Please describe the quality of education students receive here in Korea.

A: I’m hoping that they’re getting even better education in terms of quality. Unlike the students in the U.S., our students at minimum are spending time in two countries. We also draw on faculty and the students that are more diverse than the typical classroom in Fairfax. The graduation requirements and the curriculum, though, are identical. In terms of providing that support, that experience, it varies between the two. I believe we provide an even more enriching experience, for one because of the smaller ratio between faculty and students and staff and students. We have personnel that are much more experienced in the global aspects of education. So the content, even though they may be teaching the same content, in terms of application they benefit from a more global application of that knowledge that is being presented in the classroom.

Q: Please tell us about the faculty here at George Mason University Korea. Do you bring well-known faculty from the U.S. campus to teach? Do you use local Korean professors? What makes them so diverse?

A: We have three types of faculty. The first type comes from Fairfax. They are tenure track faculty that come to this campus typically for a semester. Some have stayed for a year. The second set are those hired in Korea, either Korean nationals or those originally from another country that are hired here. And the third are those hired straight from another country. Our faculty come from half a dozen countries -- the U.S., Korea, Australia, Hong Kong, England, China, and Taiwan.

Q: What about the three business-related degree programs George Mason offers? Please tell us what makes them stand out within the Korean educational sphere.

A: Well for one, we are the only foreign university that offers business programs that are Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accredited. Including Korea and the U.S., we are one of a dozen that has that accreditation. Worldwide speaking, only about 5 percent of universities worldwide that have business programs have been accredited. Even our accounting and finance programs are accredited, which puts us in the top 3 percent in the world. That’s the distinction we enjoy -- the prominence, the prestige of our business programs. We also have American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) certification, so they administer the CPA exams for those who are interested in seeking the American CPA certification. As far as I know we are the only one to offer an AICPA prep program for current students.

Q: What other degree programs does the school currently offer, and what do they plan to launch in the future?

A: We have submitted to the Ministry of Education to offer 3 additional programs, 2 of which are graduate level: System Engineering and Education. And the third program at undergrad level is Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Q: What differentiates George Mason from other foreign universities here at the Incheon Global Campus in Songdo like the State University of New York Korea and University of Utah?

A: Well we would like to think that we are the most innovative of the four. I would like to illustrate a point -- originally our students would spend semesters 3 and 4 in Fairfax. But now they spend semesters 6 and 7 there. That’s not an easy change to make; we have to redesign the curriculum to fit that model. But we did it because by providing a greater amount of time and experience in Korea before they made the transition, it gives them a higher confidence and better preparation for the change. We also feel that by having them come back for the last semester we would let them engage in the capstone project, to plan for their eventual future. Whether they get a job or go to grad school, we felt that the last semester would be a good time for them to come back.

We are also continuing to pursue better ways to innovate education here.

We also have 15 to 17 student clubs and organizations, many of which began at student initiative. We help them to feel confident that they can take charge of their own presence and their own future. So many of these activities are initiated by the students themselves. Again, we provide dozens of internships right here on campus, but also in other companies and organizations and overseas as well. We are very much focused on giving that experience which is not readily available at some of the other universities.

We also like to continue to strike a good balance between American education, while continuing to help students develop their own heritage and identity. Just because this is an American university, we do not want to replace their own culture and experience with something that is not familiar. We should help them develop an awareness of other cultures while maintaining pride in their own culture.

We’ve seen instances of a cultural deficit problem, where students who have gone overseas for many years -- Japan has seen this too -- after spending several years overseas, students come back home and they find they are unable to associate and network with the locals. Korea has already seen that starting a few years ago. Because of our presence here and our value of maintaining multiculturalism, students can maintain their own culture while developing an appreciation and value for other cultures.

Q: What key benefits can students studying at GMUK get from the school?

A: In addition to other factors such as high quality education in which students are interactively engaged in the classroom, we use the latest pedagogy, rather than relying on one or two, so definitely pedagogically we have that advantage. We look at our five academic offerings, and they are all related to social science. We hope to help our students develop the competency to become global leaders. We hope these academic fields and these programs will help them engage in tasks that will benefit them in the future.

Our students come from 21 countries. Of the 21, the U.S. is the No. 1 represented. We even have students that come from Virginia; rather than go to the Fairfax campus they elected to come here. American students here in Korea are also welcome, like graduates from an international high school.

Another distinction is that we have an unusually high retention rate. Its 89 percent, which would rank us with the Ivy Leagues, significantly higher than the Fairfax campus, higher than the Berkeley and the USCs. That’s a good sign that our students are satisfied and that they’re finding their experience to be positive. Its almost like a liberal arts college in that students are getting a lot of guidance at a fraction of the cost.

Q: The Incheon Global Campus project in Songdo was a big initiative. How would you evaluate the progress of this project to date?

A: In terms of timing I think there has been a slight delay in attracting additional universities. The original plan calls for more universities to come. In terms of quality we are making our presence known; we are working very closely with the community. We should emphasize our interest in working with the local community. Working with the local businesses here. We feel that one of the benefits is to have an American institution working hand in hand with Korean and international organizations here. In terms of making that possibility here, we have been very successful. This is an international district, a free economic zone, so we have been helpful here. We hope our students can connect with students from even more diverse areas and perhaps take some classes in other universities. We hope we can capitalize on that energy and synergy and vice versa.

Q: Are there a lot of cross-campus social activities with the other universities here? And how about with other nearby campuses like Yonsei’s?

A: Yes, very many social activities, sporting events, music events, competitions, including singing and basketball and soccer tournaments. We are going to be opening the new swimming pool soon. We’re going to fill the pool with water and have swimming contests. Each university on this campus in rotation also hosts an open event for all the universities here and also open to the community. Its a festive type of event with music, parties, entertainment, and games. On any given day there’s activities among the four universities.

Last month or so we entered into a partnership with the Korean Customs Service at Incheon Main Customs here. We also entered into partnership with Theragen EPEC in the city, not here in Songdo but in the city of Suwon. We also have partnerships with Incheon Port Authority and KB Bank here that provide internship opportunities for our students.

Q: The Korean government agreed to subsidize this campus for the first 5 years, and that was back in 2009. Is the subsidy ending this year? And how does that affect the school’s plans?

A: We’ve been here 2.5 years, so the subsidy started from 2014 not 2009. We were invited by the Korean government, so for 5 years in addition to a subsidy we get these facilities on a complimentary basis. After 5 years its a totally different story. Based on the current agreement after 5 years the subsidy will be gone and we have to pay rent too. Two years later the market value of these facilities will be quite substantial, so we have to make good plans to deal with the significantly greater cost then.

The State University of New York, Korea is in the position of having to pay rent beginning in the spring of 2017, next semester. But they’re in negotiations with the Korean government for an extension. So there is that possibility, but it remains to be seen. We are not in a position to be renegotiating now because the 5th year hasn’t come yet. But at that time we should make a determination to discuss a possible extension or pay more rent. Maybe more support for a few additional years.

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