Tien Reflects On His Cal Years At the Caen Lecture

by Fernando Quintero

In the second Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle Lecture held Jan. 27 at Zellerbach Hall, the audience was taken on a delightful journey through the American dream of Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien.

The event, hosted by Graduate School of Journalism Dean Orville Schell, began with an introduction by Vice Chancellor Carol T. Christ. She compared Tien to the series' first speaker, Walter Cronkite.

"Around here, he's as well known as Cronkite, Christ said to cheerful applause. She also went through an abbreviated list of Tien's achievements as a scientist and educator. And she revealed Tien's original desire to come to the United States to play semi-professional basketball, a sport he had excelled in as a youth in his native China.

Schell, who towered above Tien as the two walked on stage, began his questioning with: "You're 5-foot 6-inches tall. What was in your mind to want to be a basketball player?"

"When you're young, you feel you can do anything," Tien replied. "I was fast as a point guard. I could feed passes. I was doing quite well as a varsity player," Tien replied. "But when I came to the United States, I was still five-six. I learned no matter how determined you are, you have to be realistic."

Tien, a former refugee who along with his family fled China's Communist regime for Taiwan in 1949, recollected the struggles and opportunities that presented themselves during his youth. His father had been a successful financial adviser who provided Tien and his seven siblings with their own nannies. Then suddenly, Tien found himself sharing a 12-by-12 foot room with 11 others.

When Tien was a freshman in college, his father died. His mother, who had no formal education, was left to carry on. In 1956, Tien immigrated to the United States. In 1957, he earned a master's degree from the University of Louisville, where racial segregation compelled Tien to walk up to an hour and 30 minutes to school rather than take city buses, which forced blacks to sit in the back seats.

"I never had an American Dream at that time. I had a professor who called me 'Chinaman.' I laughed. I thought he liked me. The only thinking I had at that time was, 'How can I survive in the United States?'"

Today, Tien is among the most popular and respected chancellors leading a public university. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a prolonged state budget crisis, he has led the campus to its current preeminent position. He credits his success to his ability to bridge the best of what American and Chinese cultures have to offer.

"That is why a multicultural society is so important to me," he said. "We must maintain diversity and a multicultural atmosphere in order to succeed."

Still, Tien remained characteristically modest about his achievements.

"I don't feel I have accomplished that much. I owe much to my friends, my staff, the students. I draw from them. I'm someone being tagged along," he said. "I never really dreamed I could be chancellor of a major university. I feel it is now my responsibility to uphold the American dream for everyone."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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