Preaching Excellence in Diversity

First Asian-American to head a major research university, UC Berkeley, prizes openness. LEADERSHIP IN EDUCATION

CHANG-LIN TIEN looks north from his seventh-floor office at University Hall here: ``When I first came to Berkeley in 1959, I couldn't rent an apartment anywhere because no one allowed Orientals,'' he says. Today, on the oak-paneled wall hangs a plaque from the California State Assembly: ``Congratulations! First Asian-Pacific American Chancellor of UC Berkeley.'' Indeed, in a story that hit the front pages of newspapers across Asia in July, the Chinese-born mechanical engineer became the first Asian-American to head a major research university in the United States.

The saga of the three-decade journey that got him here is that of a near-destitute refugee rising above discrimination in an alien land - from the pre-civil rights South to northern California's counter culture. After a long, prize-winning teaching and research career, Mr. Tien now heads an institution of world prominence that will need to draw heavily on his bumpy but triumphant sojourn. Diversity emphasized

``I got off the bus in Louisville in 1956 and everything from lunch counters to washrooms were for either blacks or whites only,'' he recalls. ``I was so uncomfortable because I was neither. I was yellow.'' One professor called him alternately ``Ching,'' ``Chang,'' ``Chong,'' and ``Chinaman'' to belittle him.

``The feeling has never left me; it is such a wrong that any human being should be so humiliated,'' he says.

``The ethnic and racial diversification of faculty and students is the most consequential challenge [Tien] will face over the next 10 years,'' says David P. Gardner, president of the nine-campus University of California system. ``His dramatic success despite a minority background makes him uniquely qualified. But it will be very difficult.''

Dramatic demographic changes, recent outbreaks of racial tension nationwide, and increasing cultural diversity in curriculum are top challenges for Berkeley, as well as other American campuses. Such a backdrop underlines Tien as a valuable case study.

``I am for excellence through diversity,'' he says, sitting in an overstuffed easy chair. This theme will dominate an hour's discussion on how to attract an ethnic balance of top students and faculty that reflects the state population - a state in which whites will be a minority by the year 2000. More than an issue of affirmative action or equal rights, a multicultural campus is vital for students to understand the dynamics of a global community, he says.

When he came to Berkeley 30 years ago, minorities represented a mere 10 percent of the campus population. ``I always tell people I am first [the] Chancellor for everyone ... and I just happen to be Asian-American.''

``It is of course great for the Asian-American community to have one of their kind recognized at such a high level,'' says Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a national advocacy group. ``But by virtue of his long association with other minorities he is well situated to reach out to their constituencies as well.''

Though affirmative action policies contributed to the drop in white, undergraduate enrollment from 67 percent in 1983 to 45 percent here last year, the graduate school is 73 percent white and the faculty is 89 percent white. Nearly half the faculty are expected to retire in the next decade.

``How [Tien] maintains the Berkeley standard while balancing the picture in gender, ethnicity, and race makes him a national figure that others will watch,'' adds Mr. Gardner.

Tien earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from National Taiwan University, and a master's from the University of Louisville. At Princeton, he earned a second master's and PhD by age 24. Two years later he became - and remains - the youngest teacher in Berkeley history to receive a distinguished teacher award, the first of several.

In the 1980s, Tien also served as Berkeley's Vice Chancellor-Research and Executive Vice Chancellor at UC Irvine. A specialist in heat transfer and thermophysics, he served as a consultant on several NASA space shuttle missions. He and his wife have three children, each former presidents of Berkeley's honor society.

Asked for his philosophy of running a university, Tien says it grows from both American and Chinese cultures: democratic principles and freedom of communication from the former, self-discipline and family and community loyalty from the latter.

``America needs to personalize its large institutions,'' says Tien. He walks the campus every day to chat with students. ``At first they were reticent, now they approach me with good ideas and I take them.'' One idea concerned returning water to a central fountain drained because of drought. Another concerned long lines at the scheduling office.

``These are small things,'' says Tien. ``But they make students feel they have input, that the university is theirs.''

Tone of openness

``He's really a commoner, not a snobby aristocrat,'' says professor Yuan Lee, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who has known Tien for 15 years. ``People warm to him easily and this makes him more effective.'' Outgoing and personable, Tien is highly animated without being intense or overbearing. He exudes energy with a confidence that is infectious.

Another Tien philosophy is community outreach: more public service, shared resources, educational offerings, and social interaction. ``It's also a way of marshaling support, both monetary and spiritual. Public expression is very important to a public university,'' he says.

Emphasis on teaching is perhaps Tien's greatest trademark. ``Explaining to students clarifies your own thoughts for research. Research clarifies your thoughts for teaching,''he says. Doing both well is his answer to those who charge Berkeley with shortchanging undergraduates because of teaching assistants and professors who seem more concerned with their own research than educating others.

To further close the gap between graduate and undergraduate excellence, Tien wants senior administrators to go out of their way for freshmen. As head of a freshman seminar - introduction to mechanical engineering - he has set the example. ``I invited several other vice chancellors to do the same. I want them to know I believe what I say.''

``He has already established a tone for openness, communication, and accessibility,'' says Cedric Puleston, editor-in-chief of the campus paper. At a recent, tragic fraternity house fire, Tien was on the scene from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. directing affairs and cutting red tape for fire, police, and local officials. ``That's the kind of thing that sends signals to students that this man cares, he is very sensitive,'' adds Mr. Puleston.

Part of that sensitivity extends to nurturing existing faculty, Tien's way of alleviating nationwide competition for the dwindling number of top PhD-holders. His plan: more mentoring of junior faculty, women, and minorities by senior staff; greater allowances of research and development leave for minorities; maternity allowance for women tenure candidates; frequent and early counseling about tenure procedures and expectations.

Handed a recent newspaper article on campus racial unrest, Tien says he doesn't see such racism at Berkeley. ``I see a problem that after a couple of years, students gravitate to their own kind,'' he says. His antidotes: monitor ethnic backgrounds for dormitory assignments; discourage single-ethnic organizations while spawning multi-ethnic ones; encourage formalized discussion groups on racial sensitivity.

Add to those one Berkeley innovation starting in 1991: a graduation requirement of a course in American culture. ``We define [American culture] in five ways,'' he says: ``Afro-American, European-American, Hispanic/Latino, Native, and Asian-American. What we're saying is there's excellence in diversity.''

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