Michael Ratnapalan, Yonsei University

Defining the Mission

Michael Ratnapalan joined the faculty of Yonsei University’s Underwood International College (UIC) in 2012 because, he explains, “I was intrigued by the idea of teaching a liberal arts curriculum at Yonsei University, a well-established, private Korean university.” UIC offers Korean and international students an English-language liberal arts education that emphasizes creative and critical thinking, democratic citizenship, and global leadership. Trained as a historian in the United Kingdom, Dr. Ratnapalan sees the core intellectual value of a liberal arts college as being the ability to read texts carefully and critically. But, he adds, “I also follow the English clergyman and writer John Henry Newman in holding that the purpose of a liberal education is not simply to offer something objectively ‘useful’ but rather to build a person up intellectually and morally.”

A liberal arts education also can help students become more aware of the needs of others and the potential for social change. “Korean students are well known for their active engagement in movements for social justice, and historically, at Yonsei, our students have made great sacrifices and contributions in aid of the common good,” Dr. Ratnapalan said. “One of our most pressing tasks today is to retrieve this moral conscience and sense of social responsibility in an increasingly individualistic and materialistic society.” At the same time, Korean universities are striving to conform to international professional standards, establish transparency and accountability in governance, and create a system that is equitable for everyone.

Dr. Ratnapalan (far right) and other 2019-2020 Fellows at the completion of the the Summer Institute.

The 2019-2020 United Board Fellows Program gave Dr. Ratnapalan opportunities for deep thinking about those concerns. It also brought to the surface some challenging questions about UIC’s mission and its position within Yonsei. Should UIC and Yonsei simply coexist, and respectfully follow separate paths of development? Or should each integrate the other into its life and activities, and bring new meaning to the goal of global leadership? He found inspiration at the program’s Summer Institute, particularly in the reflections of Father Dennis Holtschneider, former president of DePaul University, and during a visit to Stonehill College. “These offered powerful, living witnesses of the importance of implementing a clear, relevant, and practical religious mission developed in dialogue with key stakeholders across all levels of the university,” Dr. Ratnapalan said.

A spirit of camaraderie among the Fellows in his cohort – drawn from 14 Asian colleges and universities – created an excellent environment to explore the meaning of mission. “Our conversations at the Summer Institute were lively and I gained a lot from listening to others talking about ‘big picture’ issues, such as whole person education and the role of the university in society,” he recalled. Those discussions set a foundation for further reflection and, ultimately, action.  “My experience with the United Board has helped me to understand the importance of defining an institution’s mission, and I hope to work with my colleagues to make a positive impact at UIC.”