[IMMIGRATION SUCCESS] Chang-Lin Tien (Advocate/Chancellor of UC Berkeley
- CHANG-LIN TIEN
BY ALETHEA YIP
When Chang-Lin Tien announced his plans to step down as the
chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley last July,
few were very surprised.
The popular administrator had clashed with UC regents over the
dismantling of affirmative-action programs, and during the search
for a new UC system president, Tien--who is the nation's first Asian
Pacific American to head a major research university--was not even
granted an interview.
But those close to the chancellor speculated that aside from "shabby
treatment" by the regents, Tien was in the running for a
presidential Cabinet appointment as Energy secretary--something that
did not materialize after the campaign finance scandal broke.
But the upbeat and spirited Tien, who has been credited with
transforming UC Berkeley from a large and uncaring institution into
a more unified and intimate campus, continues to discount politics
as his motivation for ending one of the most successful tenures in
the university's history.
In 1990, Tien's tenure as chancellor got off to a rocky start. Less
than two months after taking office, a local activist with a history
of mental illness, Rosebud DeNovo, broke into Tien's campus
residence wielding a machete. But police on the scene shot and
killed Tien's would-be assassin in the chancellor's master suite.
And in the fall of that year, Tien had to deal with two other crisis
situations: a fraternity-house fire killed three students; a gunman
held 30 people hostage at a nearby hotel pub, Henry's, killing one
student and injuring seven others before being shot to death by
Tien's sensitive handling of those situations helped to establish
his commanding presence in the local community.
The choice to leave UC Berkeley was a difficult one for Tien. One of
the most successful chancellors ever to lead the university--raising
a total of more than $780 million for the financially ailing campus--
Tien has invested most of his 38-year career in academia at UC
Berkeley. It is also where each of his three children graduated.
At the end of June, he began his one-year sabbatical. The first
activity during his break is traveling throughout Asia. Then he
plans to work as a visiting scholar at several universities,
including his alma mater, Princeton, and Cornell, where his son
teaches. He also intends to spend more time with his family and
return to the San Francisco Bay Area for Cal's football and
When the sabbatical is over, Tien plans to return to work in his lab
at UC Berkeley, with an endowed chair as the NEC Distinguished
Professor of Engineering. However, he did hint that the future is
"I will come back, and then, of course, I will evaluate my situation
after the transition," Tien explained. "But first I have to go
through the transition, and then go through my feelings about it.
But I do plan to come back after one year in the department as a
In a conversation with AsianWeek one week before his departure from
Berkeley for an extended tour of Asia, Tien talked about the high
points as well as the low points of his tenure, the motivation for
his impassioned fight to preserve affirmative action, the current
political climate toward Asian Pacific Americans, and his brush with
In your announcement last July, you said that this was getting to be
a tough job. What did you mean?
I never thought that this was a tough job. I enjoy my job. It's a
demanding job--time consuming. I did spend a lot of time. I don't
sleep as much and I don't get a lot of time with my family, and that
could be interpreted as tough. I love my family--my grandchildren,
my children ... and also my students, my lab. I miss those things.
After seven years, I think, especially now that the university is
doing so well, it is a good time for me to pass the baton.
When I was walking back from the faculty club, I met up with two
faculty members along the way. Both said to me, "Gosh, are you
enjoying it especially since the campus is going well?" That's
coming from the faculty. "It's the best time for you to pass the
baton," they said. So, it is now, as I predicted a year ago, but
You have been such an important role model for Asian Pacific
Americans. Since there are so few role models such as yourself for
Asian Americans, do you feel an obligation to continue to be 'out
First of all, I don't call myself a role model. I am a very ordinary
person. I do work hard and I do have principles and integrity. I try
to do the best job as I can. I try to serve the people, including
Asian Americans. But I am an American, and I think of America as a
whole country--everyone is involved.
Many people regard me as kind of a visible role model for Asian
Americans. And because of that, I do feel a sense of obligation and
responsibility to [the APA community].
In your seven years as chancellor, what have been some of the
highlights of your tenure, your proudest accomplishments?
The first three years we went through so many traumatic experiences:
the kidnapping at Henry's that resulted in the killing of a student,
the fraternity-house fire where students died, the Oakland Hills
fire, Rosebud [DeNovo] came into our house with a machete, the
[Berkeley] People's Park riot. Those are all memorable.
But in the last two to three years, the campus has changed. We don't
have incidents like those anymore. We don't even have the financial
woes that once plagued us--and we had some very tough ones. People
were saying that we were in the worst financial crisis in the
history of the university. But we overcame all of that, and now we
are doing well. I feel quite good.
Perhaps the most important thing that I would like to be remembered
for is that I injected a bit of a human touch on the campus and made
it more humane, personal, and caring.
I have noticed that American society in general--not just on
campuses--needs more of that. A lot of Americans are very generous
people, caring people. But somehow we lost a little bit of that over
time. We have become less generous as before with providing help to
the underprivileged or the underrepresented or the underdogs.
I came here as an immigrant student and a refugee, so I feel that I
need to do something, to help people who need it.
What was your American dream?
I have a broken dream. I didn't make it as an NBA basketball player.
I worked really hard but my height never changed in the upward
direction, so I feel that is my broken dream. (Laughs.)
But I think that I realized my dream. Coming as a refugee, an
immigrant, a minority, my family has made it in America. So, we are
grateful for the opportunities in this country.
What about low points or disappointments? Do you have any from your
When I first heard about the fraternity fire that killed two
students, I was not really prepared to handle that. I have children.
I went to see the parents at midnight and talked to them--that was
hard, the human suffering.
And the killing and kidnapping of students at Henry's. That was hard
on me too. But the incident with Rosebud did not affect me as much.
People say that I must have been really shaken over the fact that
somebody tried to assassinate me. But I don't feel that way.
When I see other people suffering, I feel I should do something.
Like when the regents passed [the rules rescinding affirmative
action], I felt very, very bad. I really feel bad when I see young
people losing hope. They think that they are not wanted, not
welcomed [at UC]. That really ate me alive and I was very, very
What drives that part of you, the part that wants to fix things for
people who are suffering?
Because my family suffered a lot. In 1939, I was 4 years old; we
were refugees from Wuhan who fled to Shanghai. My family lost
everything. I remember some of the funny stories. ... When I was a
youngster I had to work very hard and do manual labor. ... Then in
1949, my family lost everything in the civil war. We fled again,
this time from Shanghai to Taipei.
Then I came to the States in 1956 and went to Louisville, Ky., and I
went through harsh discriminatory experiences. All of those things
make [me empathetic toward] people who suffer because I went through
Sometimes it's hard for other people who never experienced
[suffering and discrimination] to understand that deep feeling of
commitment toward helping others, so that they don't have to go
through what I went through. I think that has a lot to do with it.
And it has made me a lot stronger.
Do you have any regrets from your time at Berkeley?
No, no regrets. All happy. I'm such a lucky fellow. My life is too
Although I would have liked [for the Cal football team] to win a
Rose Bowl. But we did go to several post-season ball games. All our
sports are doing quite well. But the Rose Bowl will come.
Several Asian American organizations, and more than a dozen
politicians, proposed your nomination as Energy secretary. In fact,
several prominent newspapers named you as one of the leading
contenders for the job. How far did the nomination process go? Did
the president call you?
Actually, I was not so enthusiastic about going to Washington, D.C.
My family has been living in Berkeley for the last 36 some odd
But on the other hand, I certainly feel a responsibility if the
community feels that we need an Asian American visible in the
Cabinet. ... I did have a lot of contact with the White House. So,
they talked to me about the possibility
So, how far did it go?
I don't want to go into details. But I have talked to many people.
The newspapers--Washington Post, the New York Times--said that I was
one of the final candidates for Energy secretary and for a while
they said that I was a leading candidate.
But after the Asian contribution controversy, especially after the
Lippo group, the Riady family's donation to our campus of $200,000.
That changed the whole complexion of the situation.
But I am not unhappy. I actually agree with the president's
decision. The timing of the appointment came at a time when my
family would not have been happy about undergoing tremendous
scrutiny and confirmation battles simply because I am an Asian,
simply because someone gave Berkeley some money--even though there
was nothing tied to the illegal contribution or anything.
So, I actually feel quite good, not having that opportunity at that
time. But I still have close contact with them.
Were you in contact with the White House when the rumors were
circulating about you becoming Energy secretary?
At that time, of course. But again it was the newspapers who said
[the rumors]. I'm not the one who said anything about it. The New
York Times and the Washington Post, they gave me a hard time.
To what extent do you think the campaign scandal affected your
nomination or influenced your nomination in that process?
No, no, I don't think it [had a major effect]. Any nomination is a
very serious, complex issue. The president has to consider many,
many different constituencies, reasons, and so on.
I don't think it [the controversy] was a major consideration.
You have been such a passionate supporter of affirmative action.
What do you plan on doing after you step down?
I will continue to speak out and perhaps even with more feeling now,
since I [won't be in the same position]. ... Sometimes I feel, as
chancellor, I am a public official and I don't want to take a
position in so direct opposition to my superiors.
And if I cannot take that, I should leave. As chancellor, I have to
be a team player and I have to follow the rules. So, if I am not, as
a faculty member that will change. You know that all of our faculty
members are very open and speak their minds. I will do that myself,
and I am joining many public organizations. I'm on the board of the
Asia Foundation. I am also on the boards of several corporations as
well as many Asian Pacific organizations, including the OCA
[Organization of Chinese Americans], CAPACI [Congressional Asian
Pacific American Caucus Institute]. I don't recall, but I must have
20 to 30 organizations that I belong to.
You have been the third chancellor to leave UC since the regents
scrapped affirmative action in 1995. Was that part of your reason
for leaving? Why did so many of you choose to leave at about the
I won't say there's no impact at all, but it was not a major reason
at all. My family, my own professional considerations--and it's a
good time right now. After seven years, perhaps, we should have
fresh leadership for a new era, and Cal is doing extremely well
So, the dismantling of affirmative action was not a major factor in
No, not a major factor. I get along with the regents very well. I
like them, they like me. We disagree on some things, but we like
Why in your opinion did so many chancellors leave within this time
The chancellor's job, not just UC, nationwide and internationally,
is becoming much more demanding. We have many more different
constituencies to manage. So, in order to sensitize ourselves to all
of them, somehow, it is not an easy task and it needs a lot of
effort and time and energy and so on. So, I put out all my energy. I
normally work 16 to 18 hours a day, every day. And so after seven
years, just like other chancellors, maybe they feel like it is time
to move on to another phase of their career.
You have been so vocal about your position on affirmative action. At
any point were you concerned about jeopardizing your job or any
future political positions because of it?
Never. I don't think about my job as an issue. I am providing a
service. I don't think that the job is important to me. I think of
it as a mission, as part of my service, and I will do the best I
can. Whether I jeopardized my job or jeopardized myself politically--
that never entered my mind, I never thought that. I'm so happy. I
have such a great life. Why should I worry about anything? It seems
like everything I do has helped me, so I never thought that anything
I did would hurt me.
Lt. Gov. Gray Davis said that your departure was partly due to
the 'very shabby treatment by the regents.' Do you feel that you
were shabbily treated by the regents?
(Laughs.) I like Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. We are very good friends. He
has been very supportive, but to that I must say that I disagree
with him. I think I have been treated quite well by the regents, and
in many ways they have been very generous to me. Even when I
sometimes voiced very different views from them, they have been very
nice to me.
In this case, I do not share [Davis'] feeling, but I appreciate his
support of me.
I think he was referring to the UC presidency for which the search
committee did not even grant you an interview. Were you interested
in that position?
In the beginning, they did ask me [about the possibility of becoming
president] and I said no. I said that I am not interested. To this
day, I am not interested. But on the other hand--again, this was
according to the newspapers--when there was some political deadlock
and tremendous upheaval, then some regents would say to me, "You
must save us. You must help us. We want to draft you." I said that
I'm not interested in that position. But on the other hand, if you
call on my responsibility to serve, then I say that I would do it
only if you [all of the regents] support me, otherwise I am not
Of course, at that time there were a lot of political issues, and I
think they selected a great choice. So, I'm happy.
Were you offended that they didn't even interview you?
Not at all. I had told everyone that the chairman of the search
committee did talk to me in the beginning and asked me if I was
interested and I said no, I am not interested. So, if I'm not
interested, of course they are not going to interview me. But many
others feel "even if he is not interested, you have to force him to
interview." So, they were all bickering. I actually don't blame
anyone. I really think they are all very nice.
There was just some misunderstanding and politics.