University of Pittsburgh

Sang-joo Lee (EDUC ’71G)

Captain of culture and education

Photo credit: Jeong Yi

At Pitt: He embraced interdisciplinary study and earned a PhD at the School of Education.

In South Korea: Lee served as deputy prime minister of education; held the position of president at four different universities; chaired high-level negotiations that led to the founding of South Korea’s professional baseball league; helped lift the Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra to international acclaim; and was awarded South Korea’s first-class Medal of Honor.


When Sang-joo Lee began to plan for college at the age of 17, the world—and his world—was changing. It was 1953. His high school years were bright. The tall, slender teenager played basketball and the French horn, and wrote poems in the school’s literary club. He was also a good dancer, whose grace and agility impressed his physical education teachers. But for his country, those years were difficult. The Korean War raged from 1950 to 1953, turning farmland into killing fields and leaving an estimated 1 million South Koreans dead, wounded, or missing.

Lee grew up and went to high school in Busan, a city perched on the Korea Strait. Like most Korean families, the Lees were financially destabilized by the war and its aftermath. The hardships made escaping poverty a key goal and Lee set his sights on higher education.

He went to Seoul National University (SNU), where he studied educational administration. He finished in 1960, then served his compulsory military service and taught speech and communication with the Korea Air Force Academy.

After four years, he went back to SNU, and earned a master’s degree in educational psychology in 1966. He approached his studies as if driven by a fever. A professor noticed his passion and recommended that he apply to study at the University of Pittsburgh.

Lee arrived at Pitt in the fall of 1967. He was 30.

He became one of the first SNU students enrolled in Pitt’s School of Education’s emerging International and Development Education Program. The exchange initiative was designed to advance South Korea’s mid-career professionals and leverage Pitt’s study of Asia. He was supported by three scholarships: one from Gulf Oil, which paid his tuition; another from the Asia Foundation, which paid living expenses; and a Fulbright scholarship, which paid for his airfare.

At Pitt, he earned a PhD at the School of Education. But his study allowed him to take classes in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and other social science departments.

In an age of Beatlemania and Afros, Lee was a conservative student with a sensible haircut who always wore a suit jacket to class. But he says his time at Pitt exposed him to new worlds. The Pittsburgh Council for International Visitors gave him tickets to Pirates’ games and the symphony. He witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, the moon landing, and the social unrest after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

“I saw people and studied ideas very different than what I was oriented to,” he says. “I became a more open person.”

Lee graduated in 1971. The development lessons he acquired in the classroom, coupled with informal discussions with other students of political science and economics over pizza and Iron City beer, put a whole new life in front of him.

He returned to South Korea reborn with new ideas and new ambitions. He built a varied and distinguished career, serving at high levels in the national government, directing two different research institutions, and becoming president of four different universities. In addition to his civic and academic leadership roles, he lectured and found time to author two memoirs. He was eventually awarded one of the highest distinctions in South Korea, a first-class Medal of Honor for public service by the government.

His years in Pittsburgh remained a strong influence. His beloved student pastimes of sports and music laid the foundation for his work as the South Korean government’s senior secretary of education and culture to the president. In 1980, he began collaborating with businesses to support South Korean baseball. The negotiations eventually gave birth to the professional Korea Baseball Organization in 1982 and, he says, would soon earn him the moniker “the Father of Korean Baseball.” Today, baseball is followed by millions, and is one of the most popular sports in the nation.

Similarly, he built collaborations with the Korean Broadcasting System to boost the profile of the symphony orchestra, helping to turn it into a much-heralded cultural institution.

“My goal,” he says, “was to link the government with private business and public relations. I thought it would strengthen the organizations inside and out.”

As a result of Lee’s vision, the orchestra increased its talent pool, and earned an international reputation.

Lee says that Pitt helped him look the future in the face. He fostered national development based on interdisciplinary research, he became a cultural leader, and shaped educational policy that would help provide more children the same opportunities to succeed that he had.