Berkeley scores Touchdown with Tien

by Jerry Lubenow

Chancellor's legacy is one of academic triumphs, record fund raising and nonstop energy

There is an air of Victorian country calm in the laboratory where Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien's three graduate students quietly wrestle with problems of microscale engineering thermophysics. Gray metal desks hug one wall and computers and electronic equipment line another. On a long table in the center of the room stacks of books and bottles of water vie for space with papers crammed with calculations.

On a recent afternoon, the tranquility is pierced by a swirl of activity in the corridor. As the buzz of conversation ripples toward them, the three young women look up eagerly from their work. "That's how we know he's coming," smiles Cynthia Goldman. "We hear him saying hi to everyone on his way down the hall."

Tien sweeps into the room on a wave of kinetic energy. He has just come from an interview with one of the candidates for Cal basketball coach and has Kansas State coach Tom Asbury and Cal athletic director John Kasser in tow. They arrive in a swirl of greetings, introductions and pleasantries as if the lord of the manor has returned from the hunt to the quiet of his drawing room. But instead of doing needlepoint, the women in this Austenian drama are national science foundation fellows doing research on laser-induced desorption in light-emitting porous silicon. As the visitors take their leave, Tien turns his attention to the work of his students.

He has been up since five o'clock. He drove to the airport with his wife Di-Hwa who was en route to Cornell to see their grandchild. Tien made a lightning visit to Los Angeles for breakfast, a fast round of fund-raising calls, and lunch at a popular Hollywood hangout with some film industry friends of Cal.

Moving to a corner conference room, Tien and his students go over a schedule for the international conference of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in Atlanta. It is the big event of the year, and Tien has circled several presentations they might be interested in. After disposing of some housekeeping items, Tien asks Jennifer Lukes how her classes are going.

"I'm enjoying them so far," she says.

"Push yourself a little," replies Tien. "Always ask yourself is there anything new here? Are there unsolved questions? Is there an article here?"

He glances at a paper Goldman has asked him to read and, pulling a small computer from his pocket, checks his calendar, trying to wedge it in with his bruising travel schedule. Next to the small dark screen as he punches in the date is a yellow Post-it with a reminder to himself in Chinese characters. He promises to review a rough draft of the paper before he leaves for Asia in October.

Somehow, his students marvel, Tien always finds time in his 18-hour days to look at their work. "He's an amazing person," says Lukes. "He comes around often, sometimes twice a week." Once, with a conference deadline approaching, Tien dropped by the lab after midnight to pick up one of Leslie Phinney's papers. The next morning at 10 he was on the phone with his comments.

Tien monitors their work closely and reminds his students to stay focused on their larger objectives; he encourages them to explore new approaches and maintain a balance between theoretical and experimental work; he asks pointed, probing questions to stimulate their thinking and invites them to disagree with him; and he constantly presses them gently to do more. And after each presentation by one of his students, Tien takes them to LaVal's for beer and pizza.

His approach to teaching is quintessential Tien and mirrors his attitude toward his other work - whether it is conducted in the serene silence of his lab or amid the tumult that constantly intrudes on his corner office in California Hall. "He thinks about things other people aren't thinking about, " says Assistant Chancellor John Cummins, Tien's chief of staff. "He thinks on the cutting edge. That's how he stayed at the forefront of his research, and he brought that approach with him to the chancellor's office."

He also brought a voracious appetite for work. Eighteen-hour days are standard, and he often sleeps just four hours a night, though he prefers five. On one recent day, he rose at 6:30 a.m. in Chicago to attend an American Association of Universities' executive committee meeting at 7:30 a.m. He ducked out just before noon, missing lunch to catch a one o'clock flight home. He landed at 3:30 p.m., was in his office by 4 p.m., and worked for 45 minutes before going home to University House to change clothes for a reception from 5-6:30 p.m. Then it was on to San Francisco for a reception and dinner for the Asia Foundation. After a final stop at the office to clear his desk, he got home just after midnight. Di-Hwa and he read until 2 a.m. before drifting off to sleep. Tien had been up for 21 and a half hours and would rise at 6:30 a.m. to start all over.

His ebullient nature and sheer physical presence on campus are legendary. At Cal sporting events, he is as ubiquitous as mascot Oski, pacing the sidelines at every football game, and never passing up a men's or women's basketball game. There are tales of him walking the campus and picking up trash, visiting Moffitt Library at 3 a.m. during finals week, teaching a freshman seminar, shaking thousands of hands at the annual reception for incoming freshmen, chatting with students in the dorms, encouraging them to relax and get enough sleep, and, encountering one student munching a candy bar, reminding them to eat a healthy diet.


His early days as chancellor were beset by a series of disasters of biblical proportion. A deadly fire roared through a fraternity house, a crazed gunman seized a group of student hostages in a popular local pub, a massive blaze raged through the Oakland-Berkeley Hills, and a street person tried to assassinate Tien and his wife in University House. Tien was always on the scene, personally providing aid and comfort to the victims and their loved ones, rallying them to rebuild their lives and their homes.

When a recession battered California, the state took a chain saw to the university budget, student fees more than doubled, and 453 senior faculty took early retirement. Tien fought hard to hold onto Berkeley's world class faculty, staving off a third wave of early retirements by threatening to quit himself.

Then, just when it seemed Tien had things back on an even keel, the Regents voted to ban the use of race, ethnicity or gender in university admissions and hiring, undercutting Tien on an issue that had become one of the signatures of his administration. Through it all, Tien not only has persevered, he has triumphed.

Consistency has been Tien's lodestar. "On Feb. 5, 1990, when I was appointed chancellor," he says, "I set four goals. Those goals have not changed." Tien pursues his goals with a Teflon eye for detail and a laser-like focus on the big picture. At breakfast with the Sunday papers during a fund-raising trip to Europe, a traveling companion asked about the French Open. Tien, who had glanced at the sports page and read the main news section, rattled off the set scores without looking up from the business page.

His insatiable appetite for detail never clutters his view of the big picture. "He's very careful about how he spends his time," says Cummins. Tien pays close attention to his calendar to make certain he has time each day to read, think and reflect. "I spend time every day thinking about what I want to accomplish," says Tien. "It may be only a few minutes on an airplane, but I try to bring everything back to my four objectives."

Maintaining the excellence of Berkeley's faculty and its academic programs is at the top of his list. Despite deep funding cuts, Tien has vigorously fought off raids on Berkeley's faculty and battled to attract bright young academics. Professor David Patterson, who turned down a $100,000 raise from a prestigious Eastern university to stay at Cal, said he did it because of his faith in Tien's ability "to lead us out of this mess battered but intact." Patterson's faith was rewarded last year when the National Research Council rated Berkeley the finest research university in the nation.

Tien's second major concern has been to ensure that Berkeley's reputation as a world class research university is not maintained at the expense of undergraduate education. He has added lower division seminars and expanded research opportunities for undergraduates, increased computer labs, and upgraded information technology and multimedia capability.


In 1995, Tien was named to a National Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who serves with Tien, quickly became a fan. Says Pelikan, "I was extremely pleased that someone who leads one of the great research universities should have as clear a sense of the teaching vision as he does - and an almost moral commitment to that vision."

While Tien's academic triumphs are widely recognized by his peers, the public is more aware of his efforts as a prodigious fund-raiser and a champion of diversity. Under his leadership, Cal has raised private support to record levels and recently launched a $1.1 billion fund-raising campaign, the most ambitious ever undertaken by a public university. While capitalizing on a high public profile to generate financial support, Tien has quietly defused town and gown conflict. Realizing a third goal, few chancellors have been as popular as Tien with students and the local community.

A nationally recognized advocate of equal opportunity, Tien has worked like a draft horse to increase diversity. As a result of his own immigrant experience, it is perhaps the most personally felt of his four goals. Pleased by the positive atmosphere on campus, Tien savors the sense of community shared by students, faculty and staff.

At a recent reception for disadvantaged Bay Area scholarship students in the oak-paneled Morrison Room of Doe Library, Tien arrived as a jazz combo played "What is This Thing Called Love?" Hand-shaking his way through the admiring crowd like a triumphant political candidate, he sampled the hors d'oeuvres, listened attentively to students and joked easily with donors. Stepping to the podium, he apologized for his wife's absence. "But, all of you are family," he said. "Everyone here has contributed to this program. You have shown that the American dream is achievable."

Coming to America in 1956 as a poor, struggling graduate student and experiencing the pain of racism first hand, Tien is a firm believer in the American dream and its corollary, the California possibility. As Joan Didion, '56, expressed it some years ago, "Berkeley - the University - seems to me more and more to be California's highest, most articulate idea of itself, the most coherent - perhaps the only coherent - expression of the California possibility."

Tien was born with a sense of that possibility in his bones. He believes in it implicitly and has a remarkable ability to inspire others to believe as well. "He has a certain charisma about him that is contagious," says Walter Hoadley, former Bank of America senior executive and a member of the search committee that chose Tien.

That charisma, and a passion for plain speaking, have helped Tien win over the media. "He's open," says one veteran higher education reporter. "He returns your calls. He's helpful on background in a way many chancellors are not." Tien has developed a relaxed relation with the press that is rare in the usually reserved world of higher education. "These regents meetings drone on, and suddenly Tien brings the room to life," says one reporter. "He is a breath of fresh air in a very gray environment."

Like a politician energized by contact with voters, Tien thrives on the grueling pace. "I don't find the job hard," he says. "I find it very enjoyable. The hours are long, but I can handle that." The two modest downsides are the huge chunks of time his duties take from his family and the strain they put on his voice. He dealt with the first concern by announcing he will retire by next June, but the latter, according to his doctor, will never be solved unless he simply stops talking for several months.

Given the schedule Tien continues to maintain, that is clearly not going to happen anytime soon. Sitting in his office in California Hall, he recently took a few moments to reflect on his chancellorship. "In this job," he says, "you have to serve so many constituencies, and any one of them can upset your plans. I feel a lot of satisfaction for having built up good relations among all these constituencies."

He is especially proud of the fact that he has not compromised his principles to win that support. "I sleep well at night," he says. "It's very hard in this business not to change. People change because of political pressures, or personal concerns. It is important to me that people remain true to their principles. I find it very difficult to deal with people who change their position depending on the issue, people who don't have a moral compass."

Tien laments the lack of leadership among his fellow college presidents. "The university is supposed to be the place where divergent views are heard," he says. "But too many leaders are silent because of political concerns." Neil Rudenstine of Harvard and Tien are the major voices for diversity. "Some people are surprised," says Tien. "They shouldn't be. The university has to assert moral leadership."

Asked if he has any advice for his successor, Tien replies, "Whoever takes this job must be willing to take risks. They mustn't feel they have to do whatever they can to hold onto the job. In the VERIP fight, I actually submitted my resignation. The president accepted it, but the regents told him he couldn't. Too many leaders, including our political leaders, are too worried about holding onto their jobs. It's more important to hold onto your principles."

A few days later, Tien arrives late for an orientation meeting for deans and chairs. Racing up the stairs to the Seaborg room, he pulls off a t-shirt and, coatless and trying to catch his breath, apologizes, "I'm sorry I'm late, I was out cleaning up the campus." He delivers a brief pep talk. Applications and enrollment are up, faculty recruiting is going very well, campus atmosphere is good, and fund raising is going extremely well. The Chancellor's Millennium Fund, which hopes to raise $50 million, is already up to about $24 million. "That shows the trust people have in Cal," says Tien.

The money will be needed to stave off stepped up raids by other universities. Harvard alone has made a dozen offers to senior faculty in the past year. "We've managed to keep most of them," says Tien. "But we must do whatever we can to keep the faculty happy. We want to have a stimulating atmosphere so people will stay at lower salaries." The deans and chairs laugh, Tien's energy and enthusiasm are infectious. As they file out, one dean shakes his head and says to another, "Well, he's going to be a hard act to follow."

Indeed, he is.

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