The sit-in protest against President Choi Kyung-hee continues even after a controversial plan to establish LiFE (Light Up Your Future in Ewha) College was withdrawn due to fierce opposition from students and graduates. The opposition intensified when the protesters’ demand to have a conversation over what they claimed as the university’s unilateral decision to establish the college was responded by the university’s request of police presence on campus.
More than 25 days have passed since the first sit-in of Ewha on July 28 at Pfeiffer Hall, also known as the Main Hall. A protest against the establishment of LiFE College has grown into demand for the resignation of president Choi.
LiFE College is a government-funded program that aims to provide continuing education for working adults who have graduated vocational schools. When the selected students complete their program in the new college, they can earn bachelor’s degrees pertaining to majors such as “new media production,” “wellness,” and “hybrid design.” Despite its seemingly good intentions, many students have shown strong opposition.
“I believe that providing universal education is important, but majors that solely focus on technical aspects of ‘new media production’ and ‘wellness’ have little to do with Ewha’s goals for higher education,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous.
“LiFE College was also promoted by the school as a ‘specialized model for women.’ However, majors that belong to the college such as ‘beauty,’ ‘fashion,’ and ‘wellness’ only solidifies traditional gender roles, which is what Ewha has been fighting against at the front-row since its establishment.”
In addition to the flaws regarding the program, the exclusion of students’opinions in making policies urged them to take action. Before the plan for the new college was announced through an official school source, students were first made aware of the plan through social media. Fearing that the plan is part of a series of recent structural changes unilaterally pushed by school authorities, hundreds of students headed to school on July 28 to protest the proposed college.
“During the two years of tenure as president, Choi has run many projects without reflecting our voices,” exclaimed an anonymous student who stayed up in the Main Hall for two days. “She never asked for our opinion nor did she hold open discussions with us. We are not here merely to disagree with the establishment of LiFE. We are here because we can no longer take her authoritarian way of running Ewha.”
On July 28, nearly 200 Ewha students gathered at the Main Hall and occupied the area to make their voices heard at the meeting where the plans for LiFE College were to be discussed with the board of trustees. The meeting was unable to proceed due to the absence of President Choi. Five board members remained, refusing to speak nor sign an agreement to withdraw the plans for LiFE College, which was suggested by the Student Government Association (SGA). The sit-in protest continued overnight as students waited to speak with President Choi about the matter.
After 48 hours of the sit-in, President Choi announced that she would come to the Main Hall and speak face to face with the students at noon of July 30. What greeted the students, however, were dozens of police buses entering the campus, deploying 1,600 police officers. According to Seodaemun-gu Police Agency, the school requested police intervention to break the protest and extract the remaining trustees, who claimed that they were unable to come out of the Main Hall due to the protesting students. In the ensuing confrontation, many students were physically injured and some even suffered from emotional trauma.
“I was at the scene, inside the Main Hall, when the police rushed in,” said a freshman who wished to remain anonymous. “I saw them breaking the window to take the deans out and trying to pull away students by force. I was terrified. I don’t think I’ll be able to view the police as I used to.”
The unprecedented intervention of the police in a school protest quickly spread nationwide via the press and social media. Professors in some colleges released a statement that the university immediately withdraw the plan. On Aug. 3, the plan for LiFE College was cancelled.
Graduates and professors support protest
As time passed, students of Ewha were no longer the lone fighters in the protest against LiFE College and the president’s undemocratic method of carrying out major projects.
Some of the school’s alumni were already aware of the situation through the social network website used by Ewha students. For most of them, however, the press was their first source of the news. Upon realizing the unprecedented scale of police intervention, thousands of graduates gathered at Ewha on Aug. 3 to support the students. Nearly 10,000 Ewha students and alumni, according to Save Our Ewha, marched to the Main Hall with their phone flash-lights guiding the way through the night. A graduate of the class of 1971 and one other represented the alumni in calling on President Choi to take full responsibility for the incident and resign. In the second rally held by students and alumni on Aug. 10, the number of estimated participants soared to 20,000.
In addition, 115 current professors of Ewha have signed a joint statement to show their support of students’ actions to call for President Choi’s resignation. The statement written and signed by Ewha professors read, “The lack of communication between the school and students, and the administration’s one sided leadership has led to the current situation. The president should take full responsibility for calling the police that disgraced Ewha’s virtue, students, and professors.”
The faculty council also wrote, “In regard to this incident, the school must make adjustments in their ways of communicating with students, the change of election process of the president, and the overall power structure of Ewha.”
New direction of protest: call for resignation of president
At 3 p.m. on Aug. 3, President Choi officially announced the cancellation of LiFE College. At 8 p.m. on the same day, the president was called on to resign during the first major protest held by alumni and students. Since then, Ewha students have continued their sit-in protest with the new goal, asking for a new president of Ewha.
“It’s time to stop President Choi’s arbitrary decisions that have been ruining 130 years of Ewha history,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. “We are tired of her dogmatic way of directing the school’s major projects. We have asked her repeatedly to gather students’ opinions before carrying out major projects, but our voice have not been heard for the last two years. On top of that, she is responsible for calling 1,600 police officers into the school where police dared not enter even during the military dictatorship in the 1970s.”
Prior to the protests that erupted over the proposed LiFE College, President Choi has been known for unilaterally initiating major changes in the school that many students opposed. Students argue that some of the major projects that were carried out during President Choi’s term of office were completed without proper process of gathering students’ voice.
For instance, Residential College, which had been widely publicized even before the president’s term began, was cancelled without any notification as her tenure began. Last year, despite student opposition, Pavillion, a café and souvenir shop that was suspected of being aimed at tourists, was built right next to the main gate. Last semester, PRIME project, which plans to cut the number of liberal art students and increase the quota in the engineering department with subsidy of five billion won from the government, was implemented despite a 24-hour sit-in led by the SGA. LiFE College was the tipping point that unleashed the accumulated anger of students toward President Choi.
10 high-ranking school officials, including the deans of several offices, tendered their resignations in hopes to subdue the students’ protest. However, rather than a positive feedback from students, the school administration received sour criticism.
“I have mixed feelings toward the resigned deans,” said a student participating in a sit-in protest. “I understand that the school is making an effort to show that they are taking responsibility for the incident, but I find this a hypocritical move. It should be President Choi herself who should resign.”
With nationwide coverage of Ewha’s long sit-in, students from other schools that had been selected to proceed the same project are organizing their own protests as well. The SGA of Dongguk University is protesting at its main gate and holding open debates. The professors of Dongguk have also signed a joint statement that held Ministry of Education (MOE) responsible for its hasty implementation of the project. At Changwon University, another school selected for the program, 66 percent of the professors have also voted against LiFE College.
What began as a lone fight at Ewha has become a wingbeat of the butterfly effect that led to action at other universities as well. It has also brought attention to the MOE’s role in the hasty implementation of this program.
Reporters: Kim Yun-young, Kim Jee-min, Lee Ye-jun