When family financial issues forced Juwan Kong, a first-year international student, to take a leave of absence in winter of 2003, he and his friends believed that the University would welcome him back whenever he was able to return.
Five years later, Kong petitioned Dean of Students in the College Susan Art, assuming his request was a mere formality. But, according to an e-mail circulated among students and a 47-person Facebook protest group recently formed, Kong was denied readmittance after University administrators determined that they believed it “makes much more sense for you to complete your degree [in Korea].”
According to the e-mail exchange circulated by students in protest of the administration’s decision, Art wrote to Kong, “There is no good rationale to return to Chicago to complete your undergraduate degree.... [T]hough you assert that the University of Chicago would offer an excellent education for you, we cannot tell from what you have sent us why—apart from wanting a degree from a prestigious university—you really should return to Chicago.”
Upon hearing of the Deans Committee decision, one of Kong’s longtime friends, an alum nus of the College, began circulating the exchange to raise awareness about Kong’s situation.
Kong protested that he was not given sufficient opportunity to argue his case, according to the e-mail. He also said that the University of Seoul does not offer the courses he wants to take.
Art said in an e-mail interview that Kong’s request was considered by the Dean’s Committee. “We do not want to approve a student’s return under conditions where it is highly unlikely that the student will be successful,” she said.
Asked what she meant by successful, Art wrote, “Being able to move forward towards completing a degree by completing classes successfully.”
The University’s website lists only one reason that students on leave of absence be barred from re-entry: if the student has completed a degree at another school, which Kong has not.
Third-year Suyeon Khim is planning to organize a letter-writing campaign on Kong’s behalf. She said the case caught her attention because of Art’s assessment that it did not make financial sense for Kong to return.
“You have suggested that your family’s resources are limited, and I really cannot see how investing over $150,000 to complete your undergraduate education can make any sense at all,” Art wrote to Kong, according to the e-mail circulated by students.
Arts’ comments struck a negative chord with Khim.
“As someone who is struggling to pay for school, it’s a very personal issue for me,” she said. “That’s not the admin’s call. Education is not for the privileged; it’s for anyone who wants to make that sacrifice.”
The friend behind the e-mail protest graduated in 2007 and requested that his full name be withheld to avoid possible “foul play in the administration” in case he applies to graduate school at the University.
“I have seen Junwan working tirelessly for the past five years to raise the tuition money in Korea, and Dean Art’s comments have really hurt Junwan and shocked me,” he said.
Like Khim, he objected to Art’s comments on Kong’s financial situation.
“Is that not solely Junwan’s decision based on his values and priorities?” he said. “Who is she to judge his investment in education ‘does not make sense’?... All in all, I wish Dean Art would admit the thoughtlessness of such comments and reverse her decision not to allow Junwan back,” he said.
Khim said her hope was that Art would extend an invitation for Kong to reapply as a transfer student. Kong could not be reached for comment.