The Korea Project: Modernized business, transformed lives

On an early autumn morning in 1958, a persistent clickity-clack punctured Robert Virgil’s concentration as he hunkered over the first exam in his first MBA accounting class at Washington University.

Virgil shot a glance around the classroom and spotted the source of the tap-tap-tapping, one row ahead and to his right: Ik-Soon Cho, one of four South Korean exchange students in the class, was flipping the beads of his abacus to calculate exam solutions.

That moment was among Virgil’s earliest encounters with a groundbreaking Washington University project that set a new course for Korean business education. In the process, it propelled Virgil’s 32-year WashU career and led Cho to achieve national acclaim in his homeland.

Just a few months before that accounting exam, Washington University signed an agreement with the US government, launching a six-year collaboration with Korea University and Yonsei University to repair and modernize business education programs in South Korea that were gutted by war, languishing from a stagnant economy, and stalled in old-fashioned teaching practices.

“Studying at Washington University changed my life in Korea,” Ik-Soon Cho, now 92, said in a Skype interview from his home in Seoul. “My career has been all uphill. This program had such an impact on my life.”

From 1958 to 1964, the Korea Project sent Olin faculty on extended tours of duty in Seoul to counsel educators overseas, demonstrate new teaching styles, write new curricula, and rebuild business libraries at the two schools. Faculty members and their families spent months overseas with limited resources and even witnessed a violent uprising that toppled South Korea’s government.

Meanwhile, dozens of South Korean business professors observed, studied, and earned degrees in Washington University classrooms in St. Louis.

“The Korea Project is one of the great chapters in Olin’s history and one of the important ones in Washington University’s history,” said Virgil, who served as a graduate student aid to the program’s leadership and still counts many of the Korean exchange students as longtime personal friends.

Transitioning economy, limited resources

Today, South Korea’s $1.4 trillion economy is among the most powerful in the world, ranked 11th globally by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations. In the late 1950s, however, its gross domestic product barely approached $2 billion.

In their contract with Washington University, five years after the end of the Korean War, US officials warned that South Korea had to rapidly transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy—an 80-year process in the United States—“if the Korean economy is to become largely self-sufficient.”

“A sharply limiting requirement in the development of business and industry is the necessity for management skills, which cannot be produced overnight,” government officials wrote in the January 1958 agreement. “In Korea, the problem has arisen so recently that schools of business are not presently equipped to meet this requirement.”

As the contract spelled out, the problems were many. For one thing, the business curricula at Korea and Yonsei universities were woefully out of date and ill-equipped to address modern industrial needs.

In a six-page report after his 18-month tour in Seoul ended, Washington University marketing professor C. William Emory expanded on that concern and the other barriers he and his colleagues were working to overcome.

Korean professors were poorly paid, for example, exacerbating all the problems Emory observed. They often taught very large classes, supplemented their income by teaching at multiple schools, and were largely unavailable to students outside of class.

Five Washington University business management and administration professors arrive in Onyang, South Korea in 1958. From left to right: Merle T. Welshans, Charles L. Lapp, Powell Niland, Sterling H. Schoen, and L. J. Buchan.

While American business students worked hands-on, analyzing real-world business cases, Korean professors relied strictly on lectures, quizzes, papers, and exams, with little to no classroom discussion.

While American students applied their knowledge in groups collaborating on capstone projects demonstrating mastery in their field, Korean students largely focused on passing employment exams required by banks and commercial organizations.

“While it may not be politic to say, the fact of the matter is that there are today too many college students in Korea,” Emory wrote in July 1960. “There are not adequate facilities for them and there are not enough properly trained professors to teach them.”

Goals of the project

Nobody credits the Korea Project for South Korea’s economic rise, but many agree on both sides of the Pacific that the intense concentration of academic resources helped push the nation’s business community in the right direction.

“It was a great contribution that Washington University made in Korea,” said Ja Song, who came to St. Louis to earn his MBA as part of the Korea Project’s effort to train overseas colleagues.

After graduating in 1961, Song served a mandatory 16-month tour in the Korean army, and returned to earn his doctorate in accounting. He taught for 10 years at the University of Connecticut, then returned to teach in Korea until 1992 when he began a four-year term as president of Yonsei University—the college that had recommended him for the Korea Project in the first place.

“Comparing what Korea had and what St. Louis had—it was so new,” Song said in a Skype interview from Seoul.

Including Song, 24 Koreans came to St. Louis to observe US teaching methods and to study. Many earned either their MBA or doctoral degrees in business administration. The professor exchange was one of the initiatives designed to develop Korean faculty, one of six broad goals outlined for the Korea Project.

“The Korea Project is one of the great chapters in Olin’s history and one of the important ones in Washington University’s history,” said Bob Virgil, who served as a graduate student aid to the program’s leadership and still counts many of the Korean exchange students as longtime personal friends.

Additionally, the US government contract tasked Washington University with upgrading and modernizing the undergraduate business curriculum at Korea and Yonsei universities; replenishing their libraries with research material and teaching tools; training faculty in more interactive and engaging teaching methods; developing a culture of research among Korean faculty; and creating deeper relationships between Korean faculty and the nation’s business community.

“It was not only trying to train the teacher, they trained industry people,” Song said. “They had conferences for them. That project had many purposes to help us know the new developments and skills in teaching about business.”

In a speech at the close the Korea Project’s first year, Ross M. Trump, then dean of WashU’s business school, praised Korean faculty members for their “cooperation in shedding some of the tradition” in their teaching methods. He also heaped praise on the Korean faculty members studying in St. Louis.

“We have been very agreeably surprised by both the ability and the willingness of these Korean faculty members to do a really outstanding piece of work in the studies they are undertaking,” he said.

The Korean visitors reciprocated with their gratitude.

“May I thank you for all you did for me during my visit to St. Louis,” wrote Soo Yung Chung, one of the South Korean professors who spent time in WashU classrooms. His January 1959 letter to Dean Trump continued, “I learned a lot about business administration at Washington University, which may be adaptable in Korea.”

Both Cho and Song also spoke fondly of former Dean Leslie J. Buchan, who managed the Korea Project from his WashU base, and of Virgil, who served as Buchan’s assistant while working on his doctorate.

While Korean faculty studied in the United States, nine WashU faculty members at various times spent extended tours of duty—along with their families—in Seoul. Another 10 traveled overseas for short summertime tours in a first-of-its-kind “management studies program” designed to provide intensive executive education for Korean businessmen who had never received any management training.

Newspapers on both continents documented the visits. Seoul’s Korea Republic reported on June 17, 1958, that five Washington University professors would soon arrive to teach courses for up to 25 executives.

Two days later, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat carried the same story, quoting Dean Trump: “Korea particularly needs business assistance, because 30,000 to 40,000 business executives were killed or kidnapped as the Communists swept south during the Korean War. As a result, you very often find men filling top positions who did not have training.”

To carry out the Korea Project’s mission, the government contract laid out a nearly $280,000 budget for the first 16 months of the project, including $40,000 for travel to and from Seoul.

With his wife and two young children, business administration professor Richard C. Reidenbach sailed overseas in the summer of 1958 aboard the SS President Wilson. He was still stationed at Korea University in April 1960, when South Korea’s first and only president, Syngman Rhee, resigned in the wake of protests marked by violence and police gunfire on that campus and throughout the country.

Corruption, fraud, and violence leading to Rhee’s March reelection had sparked tens of thousands of South Koreans to rise up, demanding new elections.

In spite of the political turmoil, the project continued, with new professors rolling in behind Reidenbach, who left about a month after the uprising, and Emory, who left two months after that.

Tight bonds, great successes

In the photograph, it’s Thanksgiving Day in 1962 and Chong Ha Lee grins widely as he holds Bob Virgil’s young twin daughters Karen and Kim in his arms. The girls wear traditional Korean gowns that Lee’s wife had sent. Virgil’s wife Gerry is in the kitchen preparing a turkey for the holiday dinner.

“For me, the most meaningful part of this project was just the number of Koreans who were friends of mine and Gerry’s,” said Virgil, who considered Chong Ha Lee and Ik-Soon Cho—along with Ja Song, Il-Chung Whang, Se Hwan Yu, Ik-Soon Im, and Joon Bum Lee—to be something of a band of brothers during their time together at Washington University.

The bonds forged through the Korea Project were far-reaching, enduring long after the project officially closed in 1964.

Joon Bum Lee made that clear in 1988, when he returned to WashU to be honored as a distinguished alumnus. By then, Lee had earned his doctorate in economics, risen through the ranks at Korea University and had become its president—a post he held till 1989.

“The business program at Korea University was indeed the product of the moral and material support of your great institution,” he told his Washington University hosts that day. “Korea has indeed risen from the ashes—the physical ashes of the war and the mental and spiritual ashes of subordination to outsiders.”

Though Virgil never traveled to Korea while the project was operating, he did have the chance to visit years later, after becoming dean of the business school in 1977. The measure of its success, he said, is in the reputation of the business schools at Korea and Yonsei universities.

“Today, the universities we worked with in Korea are very well respected around the world,” Virgil said. “You’d look at that and you’d look at the emergence of Korea as an economy, as a force in international business. That emergence took place after the war and in the wake of the work we did.”

Ik-Soon Cho is justifiably proud to have had a hand in that work. He helped sow the seeds of Korea’s economic rise after studying in St. Louis, when his government assigned him to work in its budget department, counseling government-controlled businesses to revamp and modernize their accounting systems.

Ik-Soon Cho gives his acceptance speech in November 2016 after members of the Korean Institute of Certified Public Accountants unanimously named him to their hall of fame.

He worked in industries ranging from tobacco to railroads and became renowned in the country as he evangelized American-style “profit-and-loss” accounting. In fact, members of the Korean Institute of Certified Public Accountants unanimously named him to their hall of fame in 2016.

A few weeks before that event, Cho sent Virgil a letter, offering his thanks for a recent awards ceremony that finally bestowed the MBA certificate he was not present to receive years earlier. He reflected on his career and the role Washington University had in enabling it to happen.

And he had one other message for his business school mentor: “I still remember in our accounting principles class examination, you made a complaint on my noise-making from the abacus,” wrote Cho, teasing his old friend. “Please accept my belated apology.”

Olin faculty in South Korea

Faculty members taught in Seoul as either long-term residents—spending 18 to 20 months, with their families—or management study program executive instructors for three- or four-week tours.

Long-Term Faculty

  • C. Willam Emory, marketing: February 18, 1959 to July 9, 1960
  • Charles Gilliland, management: April 30, 1958 to December 10, 1959
  • Williams R. Hoskins, accounting: August 25, 1959 to June 29, 1961 (visiting professor, Indiana University)
  • Robert C. Manhart, production management: August 30, 1958 to February 13, 1960
  • Richard Reidenbach, business administration: August 6, 1958 to May 28, 1960
  • J. George Robinson, marketing, August 6, 1958 to May 14, 1960
  • James Schindler, accounting: February 6, 1959 to June 28, 1962
  • John E. Walsh: management: July 12, 1960 to Oct. 25, 1961
  • Ralph J. Winston, January 23, 1963 to August 31, 1964

Management Study Program Instructors (1958)

  • Carman G. Blough, July 18-31 (American Institute of CPAs)
  • L.J. Buchan, administration: July 8 to August 1
  • Carl Dauten, finance, July 7 to August 13
  • Charles Lapp: July 10-31
  • Powell Niland, production management: July 8 to August 1
  • James Schindler, accounting: July 7 to August 13
  • Sterling Schoen, management: July 8 to August 1
  • Joseph W. Towle, management: July 10-31
  • John E. Walsh (permanent assignment)
  • Merle Welshans, finance: July 10-31
  • Dean Ross Trump

Sources: WUSTL Archives and Washington University Photographic Services.

Story by Kurt Greenbaum

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