February 21, 2006

Thai university president returns for visit

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Fresh from a United Nations meeting of international university presidents, one of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s distinguished alumni is spending a few days on campus here, renewing friendships and making new ones.

Thanu Kulachol, president of Bangkok University in Thailand, arrived in Southern Illinois Sunday (Feb. 19) following the United Nations Secretary General’s Global Colloquium of University Presidents, Feb. 14-15 at Princeton University. It was the second time in as many years Secretary General Kofi Annan invited Kulachol to take part in the discussion of worldwide social and higher education issues.

Kulachol, who earned his doctorate in education in 1977 at SIUC, was one of handful of officials from prestigious higher education institutions around the world invited to the gathering. He took part in a discussion about the social benefits of a research university in the 21st century. The issue, Kulachol said, is an important one to consider with the ongoing competition for tax dollars and resources.

“Many governments and society expect short-term benefits from a university. If they give funding, they want something in return, sometimes immediately, such as wanting them to produce so many engineers or so many doctors. They might not even care about pure research,” Kulachol said. “But universities should also consider themselves a sanctuary for new knowledge, and that’s not always understood by the society.

“I suggested we take the middle way. We have to understand the government and public’s wishes to a certain extent, but we can’t neglect our principles. We have to act as a cradle for progress and pure research,” he said. “We have to be diplomatic.”

Kulachol arrived at SIUC in 1975 after selecting the University based on its reputation as a fine institution for education scholars and its location in the Midwest. Having already earned his master’s degree on the east coast of the United States, he also ruled out the West Coast because its climate is similar to his homeland of Thailand and Kulachol wanted to experience a new environment.

“At that time, (SIUC) had the largest number of students in what was then the higher education area,” Kulachol said. “I thought it would be a good place to study, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many students attending.

“I spent two years here. I was very pleased. The University environment was such a great place to study – not a big city, not too small. And the people were great.”

Upon returning to Thailand, Kulachol became vice president for academic affairs at Bangkok University, becoming president in 1988. He later served in his country’s Senate, as appointed by the King of Thailand, and in other education leadership positions. In 2000, Kulachol visited Carbondale again when SIUC named him a distinguish alumnus.

Last year, Annan invited Kulachol to participate in the first university colloquium sponsored by the U.N. During that meeting, international university leaders discussed ways to protect scholars from outside pressure that threaten their academic freedom. In a world partitioned by war and debate over terrorism, such protections are increasingly important, Kulachol said.

He is in Carbondale until Wednesday. Kulachol planned to meet with Thai students attending SIUC and arrange for another student currently attending Bangkok University to pursue her doctorate at SIUC. He and his wife, Nongyao, also visited a son who is a high school exchange student in North Carolina and also planned to visit a daughter – a professor of business administration in Ohio – who is expected to give birth to their first grandchild this month.

Kulachol said university presidents in all countries face many of the same issues, from threats to academic freedom to funding issues. Such leaders, he said, have a large responsibility to society at large.

“Universities hold the future of the world. Without research, everything stands still. There is no progress,” he said. “University presidents have a very important role in managing this and walking that thin line. “

Building relationships among the University and its students and graduates is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Thanu Kulachol

Thanu Kulachol
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