Thursday, May 03, 2007

An article I'd missed

While I was traveling, the Wall Street Journal ran this article about Bob Laughlin and his tenure as president of KAIST, one of the premiere research universities in South Korea. The article is definitely worth a read. It has some classic understatements:
Dr. Laughlin, a Stanford physicist, is a talkative man quick to express his opinions.
KAIST hired Laughlin to come in and shake things up. When he did, he did so in characteristic Bob fashion, and they reacted negatively. Things went south from there:
In an attempt to assert his control, Dr. Laughlin in December 2005 set out to personally interview and evaluate every one of Kaist's 400 or so faculty members, focusing mainly on the quality of their research projects and academic work. For those professors who agreed to the interviews, he gave them a one-paragraph summary grading their work from "unimportant" to "very important."
Yeah, that may have rubbed people the wrong way.

To be fair to Bob, the leaders of KAIST were crazy to hire him - all issues of personality clashes aside, he'd never managed a group of more than a handful of people, let alone an enormous research institution with a complex bureaucracy, large staff, and huge budget. Surprise: a Nobel prize in physics doesn't automatically imply success in extremely sophisticated management problems. It's also entirely possible that his assigned task was essentially impossible by design. An interesting read, anyway.


hypnose said...

Physics Today reported that, Bob Laughlin said "I will do anything that brings money" after he got fired from Korea. His salary there was around half a million bucks according to rumors. Why does he need so much money so badly? Is he going through a divorce??
Another thing is, does anyone know his own recent research accomplishments? How many grants does he have right now? How many students does he mentor etc.? He needs to stop acting as if he is the president of the united states. I think even the president is more humble than him.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

when I read about this "conflict" for the first time, I automatically assumed it was about western vs. eastern way of solving/addressing problems. Now I realize it may have something to do with lack of managerial, aka "people" skills, even if you are a Nobel laureate.

I think a better question is - why did koreans decide he was a good candidate for the job? And how are/should be management jobs assigned in science?

Doug Natelson said...

It's very much an open question just how much of Bob's larger-than-life persona is carefully cultivated.

IP - I think (a) they were blinded by the Nobel aura, and (b) they were conflicted about how much change they actually wanted. From what I can gather, Laughlin made no secret about the direction he wanted to go at KAIST from the outset. Management skills probably only aggravated a situation not likely to succeed.