Chang-Lin Tien tells
A few years ago, Chang-Lin Tien stood at a podium at a
post-game celebration after a Citrus Bowl win in Florida.
As chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and an avid sports fan, he was there to congratulate the winning Berkeley team. Instead, however, he heard fans of the opposing team shouting from the back of the room, "Buy American."
"Being a racial minority in America still has tremendous baggage every day," Chang-Lin said. "Even being chancellor of Berkeley, such a great institution, I could not escape that."
Chang-Lin gave a series of presentations on the Homewood campus last week during a visit that coincided with the controversial U.S. visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin. But the acclaimed scholar steered more toward academic concerns during his talks, which included "Cultural Diversity and Academic Excellence" and "The Future of the American Research University."
"Cultural diversity is absolutely the greatest strength of this country," said the 66-year-old, who was born in Wuhan, China, and educated in Shanghai and Taiwan before coming to the United States in 1956. "There is a mixing here that is unique."
Chang-Lin, who served as chancellor at Berkeley for seven years, earned a master's degree on a full scholarship at the University of Louisville in 1957, then earned a second master's degree and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1959, the same year he joined the Berkeley faculty. He served as chancellor there from 1991 until earlier this year.
He got his most significant lesson in pride and principles, he said, as a student in Louisville.
"In the 1950s, Kentucky was still a segregation state," Chang-Lin said. "I was shocked by many things."
A prominent professor and mentor at the school and in the lab where Chang-Lin worked, he said, insisted on calling him "China Man." Though initially he didn't consider the phrase a slight, others convinced Chang-Lin that the professor was insulting him by not using his name.
"I didn't know this was derogatory. I thought it was very nice," he said. "Once I knew it was a derogatory term, that it was simply not right, I couldn't maintain my dignity and let it go on."
Believing his scholarship could be jeopardized if he challenged his mentor, Chang-Lin debated for two days and two sleepless nights on whether or not to confront the professor.
"Finally, I said, 'Professor, please don't call me China Man anymore. Call me by my name or a nickname or whatever,' " he said. "That time I was courageous, probably because I didn't sleep for two nights.
"It worked out well. That professor never called me China Man anymore," Chang-Lin said. "But he never called me by my name either."
The experience, he said, taught him to stand up for what he knew was right.
"You won't get hurt, even if you are afraid, concerned and apprehensive," he said. "But honesty and integrity are always the highest virtue and should never be compromised."
Now known as an ambassador of Chinese-American relations, Chang-Lin is a staunch defender of academic excellence and diversity. He has a reputation for being deeply committed to maintaining excellence and diversity in education. A father of three, he is proud of his children's accomplishments and acceptance of two distinct cultures.
"I always told my children that they have very deep roots; they are 100 percent Asian," he said. "On the other hand, they are 100 percent American."
When he was named the chancellor at Berkeley, Chang-Lin became the first Asian-American to head a major research university. After seven years in that position, he resigned, citing a desire to return to teaching and spend more time with his family. He was credited with leading Berkeley through the toughest financial times in the campus's history, increasing the school's undergraduate population and attracting top faculty members.
He spent the majority of his professional career at Berkeley, where he now holds the title of NEC Distinguished Professor of Engineering.
"I have realized my American dream in many ways," he said. "One reason I resigned my chancellorship was to work harder with the community to help other people realize their American dream."
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