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The adulation didn’t last long, however. His actions have been fiercely debated this year amid news reports that the four dead students suffered immense stress over their schoolwork.

In January, a 19-year-old freshman, who had been placed on academic probation, killed himself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Two students jumped to their deaths last month.

The latest, identified only by his surname Park, had graduated from a special science high school for gifted students before joining KAIST, where he was majoring in mathematical science.

University officials say he had applied for a leave of absence, citing depression, and had consulted the school psychiatrist on April 6, a day before he plunged to his death.

Adding to the debate, a KAIST professor was found dead the following Sunday, hanging from a gas pipe at his home following a government investigation into allegations that he embezzled official research funds.

Politicians, activists and liberal professors outside KAIST are calling for Mr. Suh’s immediate resignation. He was questioned last week at a parliamentary committee meeting about the recent deaths.

“I don’t think it’s right for him to stay on the job after five people have passed away,” Chung Doo-un, a senior member of the ruling Grand National Party, told the meeting.

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik has said that officials must first determine why the students killed themselves before holding Mr. Suh responsible. He said Mr. Suh has made positive contributions to South Korea’s education reform.

South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the 31 nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of wealthy, industrialized nations.

The rate of suicide soared to 28.4 per 100,000 people in 2009, an increase from 18.7 in 2002, the Health Ministry said, citing an OECD figure.

Suicide is also the leading cause of death for South Koreans in their 20s and 30s amid fierce competition for jobs and other economic pressures, ministry officials said.

It is not just ordinary people who have committed suicide.

Mr. Roh, the former president, jumped to his death in May 2009 while embroiled in a corruption investigation. Choi Jin-sil, one of South Korea’s most famous actresses, committed suicide in 2008, and her younger brother, also an actor and singer, hanged himself last year. Last October, a TV personality known as the “happiness preacher” killed herself with her husband.

Before Mr. Park’s death, Mr. Suh defended his policies, saying smart students won’t come to a university that doesn’t challenge them. He later offered a public apology for the deaths and pledged to abolish financial penalties for low grades and ease the requirement for English-only classes.

But he said the competitive academic program may not be the only reason for the suicides and that he has no plans to step down immediately.

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