University of Pittsburgh

Keun Namkoong (GSPIA ’89)

Public service groundbreaker

Portrait of Keun Namkoong

Photo credit: Jeong Yi

At Pitt: Namkoong earned a PhD in public and international affairs from GSPIA.

In South Korea: He advocated for and instituted changes to how government administrators use research to build better policy; wrote two widely used books on research methods and public policy; and helped transform Seoul National University of Science and Technology into a globally respected research institution as the school’s president.

 

By 1954, South Korea had reached a turning point in its history. The war’s fighting had ceased, and thousands were migrating to the cities, looking to outrun the deprivation, destruction, and pestilence wrought by the conflict. They wanted hope.

At this moment, a mother in a countryside village about 200 miles from Seoul bore her first son.

Keun Namkoong was the fourth of her eight children. The boy’s father was a teacher and later a principal at a small elementary school. He noticed that the world was changing and encouraged his children to think ahead. He told his son to go to law school to be a judge.

“My father saw that agrarian people who were rich had lives that were collapsing after the war,” says Namkoong. “He saw that farming, the old way of life, was changing and that education would be the way to advance in society.”

Namkoong grew to be an excellent student. In the spring of 1972, he left for Seoul National University (SNU), where he studied political science. Campus life, he says, was very liberal, and he enjoyed the freedom of academic exploration. Law was not for him, he decided. Instead, Namkoong studied social science and government, earning a master’s in public administration, with top honors, in 1978.

He pursued a career as a public servant, and then became a full-time lecturer of political science and public administration at a military academy while completing his compulsory military service.

Shortly afterward, Namkoong began to teach at a university south of Seoul, while keeping an eye out for opportunities to study abroad. He remembers, in 1984, being elated to receive a letter of congratulations from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He knew of GSPIA. He says it had a reputation for elevating South Korean public administration staff and claimed some well-known alumni who worked as professors in South Korea. So, when the offer from Pitt arrived, he accepted it immediately—again, guided by his father’s philosophy.

“My father always said the place where you’re born is not the place where you’re living. The encouragement was always to move forward. I did not hesitate to go to Pittsburgh because it meant I could go to a ‘rising place.’”

He knew that he could “rise” at Pitt because the study and training would be an opportunity to learn about the broader world.

“To not go was not an option,” he says.

Namkoong came to Pitt with his wife in the summer of 1985. He was 31. He approached his graduate studies just as he had his earlier education: with discipline. He would read all night, catch naps in the early morning, and then head to class. He bonded with international classmates—from China, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia.

He earned top marks on his way to his doctorate in public affairs. His dissertation—a cross national study on public health policies and programs—earned national recognition. He worked with professors whom he calls innovators in public policy: Louise Comfort, William Dunn, and B. Guy Peters. He strengthened his skills in statistical research. He was awed by the amount of public and historical records in Hillman Library and inspired to improve his own nation’s library resources and documents.

When he returned home in 1989, South Korea’s economy, infrastructure development, and education were on the upswing. Namkoong’s work would contribute to this progress. He wrote two books on research methods and public policy that were widely used by students and South Korean public service officials. The books emphasize evidence-based research and policy making, both concepts and practices he learned at Pitt. His work was recognized by the prestigious Korean Association for Public Administration, which honored him with its Excellent Book Award in 1999.

He built an impressive career in educational leadership. As president of Seoul National University of Science and Technology, he transformed the school from a teaching university into a highly esteemed research institution, competitive in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.

Namkoong is now back in the classroom, teaching administration, but what he learned on the Oakland campus, he says, he used to shape a new generation of critical scholars and civil servants who practiced reason and analysis to better society. His expertise and high-level work paved the way for a more modern and efficient government—all because he followed his passion and his father’s advice to rise.