Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, the first Asian-American to head a major U.S. university, died Tuesday night at the age of 67.
Tien, who served as chancellor from 1990 to 1997, died at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Redwood City, two years after suffering a brain tumor and debilitating stroke, according to a UC Berkeley statement.
Tien made his reputation as an award-winning scientist who worked on insulation tiles for the space shuttle, a prodigious fundraiser who guided UC Berkeley through tough economic times and a tireless fighter for affirmative action, even in the face of opposition from the UC Board of Regents.
Locals remember a warm leader who made a strong effort to reach out to the city.
“He was a wonderful, personal friend,” said Mayor Shirley Dean, on the verge of tears, describing a great intellect who still took time to lecture before students at Berkeley High School.
“He would take his personal time and actually be there,” she said. “It wasn’t just lip service.”
Tien was born on July 24, 1935 in Wuhan, China. In 1949, his family fled China’s communist regime for Taiwan. After completing his undergraduate education at National Taiwan University, Tien emigrated to the United States in 1956 to study at the University of Louisville and later Princeton University, receiving two masters degrees and a PhD in mechanical engineering.
During his time in the South, Tien learned about racism firsthand. A Louisville professor repeatedly referred to him as a “Chinaman,” Tien recalled, and the black-white divide was plainly evident.
“One day I got on a bus and saw that all the black people were in back, the white people in front. I didn’t know where I belonged, so for a long time I stood near the driver,” Tien once said. “Finally, he told me to sit down in front, and I did. I didn’t take another bus ride for a whole year. I would walk an hour to avoid that.”
In 1959, Tien joined the UC Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and in 1962, at the age of 26, he became the youngest professor to win UC Berkeley’s Distinguished Teaching Award.
An expert in thermal science and engineering, Tien helped the governments of Hong Kong and the United States work through several problems, including the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island.
“He was a visionary,” said Richard O. Buckius, a former Tien student who heads the department of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “He marked out new high-impact areas, and then he lead everybody to the next area.”
In 1988, Tien briefly left UC Berkeley to serve as executive vice chancellor at UC Irvine. But in 1990, he returned to take the reins as UC Berkeley chancellor.
Tien faced a series of crises shortly after taking office – a fraternity house fire that killed three students, a hostage-taking at a hotel bar near campus in which a gunman killed a student before being shot dead by police, and an assassination attempt by a machete-wielding local activist with a history of mental illness.
“People say that I must have been really shaken over the fact that someone tried to assassinate me,” Tien told Asian Week newspaper in 1997. “But I don’t feel that way.”
Tien said the hostage situation and fire were more difficult.
“When I first heard about the fraternity fire that killed two students, I was not really prepared to handle that,” he told Asian Week. “I have children. I went to see the parents at midnight and talked to them – that was hard, the human suffering.”
Tien also faced a fiscal crisis when he took office. With the California economy lagging, state funding for UC Berkeley dropped by $70 million or 18 percent within four years, according to a university statement.
In response, Tien launched an ambitious fund-raising drive in 1996 that collected $1.44 billion by the time it was complete. At an April 2001 gala to celebrate the end of the campaign, current UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl announced the creation of the Chang-Lin Tien Center for East Asian Studies.
Tien also gained notoriety for his outspoken support of affirmative action, which the UC Board of Regents banned in 1995. In 1996, Tien took his case to the editorial page of the New York Times.
“It would be a tragedy if our nation’s colleges and universities slipped backward now, denying access to talented but disadvantaged youth and eroding the diversity that helps to prepare leaders,” he wrote.
The UC Berkeley campus mourned its own leader, forged in the fires of American diversity, Wednesday.
“Chang-Lin was an exceptional leader during one of UC Berkeley’s most challenging periods,” said Chancellor Berdahl, in a statement. “His energy and optimism, his willingness to fight for the principles he cherished, and his loyalty and love for this campus made it stronger and better.”
Tien is survived by his wife Di-Hwa, of Berkeley; a son, Norman, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis; and daughters Phyllis, a physician at UC San Francisco, and Christine, the deputy city manager of Stockton. Tien also leaves four grandchildren.
A campus memorial service will be held Nov. 14 from 3 to 4 p.m. at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
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