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South Korean university delays vote on whether to suspend president

KAIST president Shin Sung-Chul has been referred to prosecutors for allegedly misusing public funds — an accusation he denies.

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Students at KAIST work on a robot

Leaders at Korea's top technical university, KAIST, today voted to delay a decision to suspend its president.Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty

Leaders at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology decided 6–3 to defer a vote on whether to suspend the university’s president Shin Sung-Chul, who has been accused of making illegal payments to a lab in California — allegations that he denies. The board will take the matter up again at its next meeting.

The science ministry alleges that Shin misused public funds in his previous job at another university by making payments to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), part of a deal in which scientists at South Korean universities were granted access to one of the laboratory's imaging facilities, an X-ray microscopy beamline.

It also alleges that some of these payments went to one individual, a former student of Shin’s and a staff scientist at LBNL, and that this could constitute embezzlement. Shin refutes the allegations that he misused or embezzled money. He says the contracts between LBNL and the Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology (DGIST), a publicly funded institute where he was president from 2011 to 2017, were legal.

The ministry had requested that KAIST's board of trustees suspend Shin at its meeting today.

The board currently has ten filled seats, which includes representatives from the government, current and former KAIST professors, a DGIST professor, the former president of Seoul National University an attorney, and an advisor from the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology in Suwon—as well as Shin, who abstained. The three members who argued against postponing the decision were the representatives from government ministries, including one from the science ministry.

After the board meeting, Shin briefly addressed dozens of media gathered outside the meeting room and thanked the board for its decision to delay the vote. "I am sorry to have caused trouble to KAIST and many people in the scientific community,” he said.

The controversy now moves to a legal stage. The ministry referred Shin to prosecutors late last month.

Scientists have rallied around Shin, with an online petition collecting over 800 signatures as of Friday morning, including over 250 from KAIST faculty. Though Shin remains in office for now, many scientists decried the government’s interference in KAIST’s affairs.

One petition signee said the controversy showed the board had “no power to reject the request from the government”. Another lamented that though Shin remains in office, the suggestion of dishonour is difficult to remove.

In a statement, the science ministry said it respected the decision of the board.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07795-y

Yi Yong-myung contributed reporting.

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