Charisma hidden under mild character
She performed well at school as a student. She was the top performer not only when she entered the university but also when she graduated. She studied with scholarships throughout her four years at the university. She served as the president of the student council during her senior year. As a student, she wished to become a scholar. She wanted to become a "godmother" of the political science community in Korea.
She concentrated on her studies during the tumultuous years in Korea's history from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, a chaotic period involving successive landmark events, including the May 16 military revolution and the incursion of 31 North Korean armed spies into Seoul in 1968. She won a doctorate in political science at the University of Kansas in the United States around that time, becoming the third woman in Korea to earn a PhD in that subject. Afterwards, she served as a lawmaker for four years. Having accumulated far-reaching experiences both in political theory and practice, she became the president of her alma mater in 1994 and went on to serve the post through August 2008. She strove to expedite the development of the university by serving as the dean of its college of political science and law as well as its planning department.
Lee has been extremely busy recently as the incumbent president. She has been scrambling to prepare a plan for her university's next 100 years in the wake of the university's centenary. She was so busy that she even had to give a joint interview to several media outlets, instead of one-on-one meetings, following her inauguration as the first fourth-term university president in Korea.
Lee's very first inauguration took place in March 1994. When she returned to her office after the end of her inaugural ceremony for her first term amid a festive mood, she bumped into "an unpleasant inauguration present." It was a bill levying the university 780 million won in taxes. Over the several months thereafter, she received a slew of bills, including one for payment in arrears amounting to 230 million won, and fines of 120 million won.
The university was facing mounting managerial and financial burdens due to snowballing taxes. She urgently had to get the university's property released from a designated park zone, return the government property on campus to the government, and find a replacement property to fundamentally solve its problems. She made every effort to implement solutions only to face a flurry of obstacles. The problems even seemed beyond her personal capacity. "I thought I owed the university a lot, because I had worked with the university ever since I became a professor in 1976. I had to resort to a do-or-die strategy in a desperate bid to save the university. We had so many problems that required urgently resolution. We had no other option."
One year after her inauguration, she took a remarkable measure to solve the problems. She declared "the second inauguration of the university," and planned a "mega-event" to make the declaration to the university's students and alumni. Preparation for the event alone was to cost 300 million won, and some professors did not hesitate to blast her, saying "The president is driving the university toward bankruptcy." But she turned a deaf ear to such criticism. Instead, she put her plans into practice one after another.
She visited her ex-classmates and staged a campaign urging them to make donations amounting to 1.5 million won to support the university. She also attracted 1.2 million dollars from the French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu. It was the first case in Korea of foreign investment in a domestic university. Thanks to the efforts, the university's development fund has snowballed to 92.7 billion won at present. Considering that her university has only about 10,000 female students enrolled, she effectively achieved her goal.
During her terms in office, Sookmyung has changed drastically as well. The size of its campus has increased from 19,800 sq meters to 59,400 sq. meters. A total of 17 new buildings have been constructed, including buildings for colleges, a museum, and a concert hall. Sookmyung has been listed by the government as an exemplary university in terms of educational reform over the past six years. The university also constructed a mobile communication network on its campus. It ranked atop the national customer satisfaction index for three straight years, as it has been making impressive qualitative and quantitative achievements over the past years.
Leadership in digital age
Lee put forward a bigger vision of developing the university as one of the best leadership universities in the world, and is drawing up a roadmap for the university's next 100 years. No one is trying to block her now since she successfully realized her earlier vision.
She has benefited significantly from her long presidency that has extended four straight terms. She has been able to implement big projects requiring long-term negotiations without serious difficulties. Such projects include the construction of the "Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum," "Moon Shin Museum," which houses a collection of works created by the late world-renowned sculptor Moon Shin, and "Le Cordon Bleu Sookmyung Academy," a joint venture with the world famous cooking school in France. From an outside perspective, Lee is like a highly capable homemaker with leadership and wisdom, who has built up a full pantry for the "Sookmyung" family after inheriting completely empty cupboards.
In her own home, Lee is a very caring mother who prepares breakfast for her family every day. She says it is her inherent duty to take care of her own home as a mother. It may be difficult to determine which one of her two roles is more important, but she is efficiently managing both roles for her university and her family, relying on her perseverance and her soft and gentle character. An old saying has it that "the soft overcomes the hard." If a charismatic figure was the image of women leaders in the 20th century, Lee's soft and gentle leadership might very well constitute the model for the new digital age.