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Obituaries

Chang-Lin Tien, 67; Headed UC Berkeley

October 31, 2002|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Chang-Lin Tien, the first Asian American to head a major national research university as chancellor of UC Berkeley, where he garnered attention as a formidable fund-raiser and outspoken advocate of affirmative action, died Tuesday at a hospital in Redwood City. He was 67.

Tien, who was chancellor from 1990 to 1997, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffered an incapacitating stroke during surgery in September 2000. He spent the last two years under medical care at his Berkeley home and officially retired from teaching and other duties last year. He was admitted to the hospital again about 10 days ago as his condition declined.

The affable and popular campus leader stepped down as chancellor shortly after a bruising debate on the UC Board of Regents and throughout the state over affirmative action.

He was one of the highest-ranking public college officials to condemn Proposition 209, the successful 1996 ballot measure that repealed government affirmative action programs for women and minorities.

A mechanical engineer by training who began his teaching career at Berkeley in 1959, he was a highly regarded expert in heat transfer technology who helped design and solve problems with the heat-shielding tiles on the space shuttles as a NASA consultant.

He advised scientists dealing with the nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, and made a major contribution to the design of magnetic levitation trains in Japan.

Berkeley's seventh chancellor, Tien spent all but two years of his four-decade UC career at the Northern California campus, where he relished mingling with students on Sproul Plaza. All three of his children are Berkeley graduates.

As chancellor, he weathered severe financial austerities, a wave of senior faculty retirements, a deadly fraternity house fire and an apparent assassination attempt by an assailant who disagreed with the university's plans for Berkeley's fabled People's Park.

"Chang-Lin was an exceptional leader during one of UC Berkeley's most challenging periods, a time of severe budget cuts and political changes," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. "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 frequently invoked his experiences in the United States as a poor Chinese immigrant in the 1950s when defending affirmative action programs in higher education.

Born in Wuhan and raised in Shanghai, he was one of eight children of a well-to-do government banking official who fled with his family to Taiwan before the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. In Taiwan, Tien and his large family lived as refugees in a 12-foot-by-12-foot room.

Prosperity returned after the former mayor of Shanghai became the governor of Taiwan in 1950 and made Tien's father his top deputy.

But when his father died of a heart attack two years later, the family's fortunes were dashed again. All but one member of his family eventually immigrated to the United States.

Tien was the third to arrive. In 1956, the graduate of National Taiwan University was 21 and nearly penniless when he landed in Louisville, Ky., to study on a teaching fellowship in the University of Louisville's department of mechanical engineering.

He stepped right into the pre-civil rights South.

In Louisville, he encountered signs that labeled the washrooms and drinking fountains either "whites only" or "colored." For a long time he stood on buses near the driver, until he was finally told to sit in front with the whites. He avoided the bus for a year after that.

"I was really confused and scared," he said in 1990. "I'm yellow. I don't know if that's colored or white.

"That left a very deep impression on me. This is a tremendous injustice to humiliate any human being that way."

In class, a professor called him "chinaman" for three months until Tien learned that it was pejorative and challenged him. "So he'd say, 'hello,' 'come.' But he never called me 'chinaman' anymore," Tien said.

When Tien was hired to teach at Berkeley, restrictive covenants prevented him from buying a house in certain neighborhoods. Decades later as chancellor, he encountered racism again when the university's football team won the Citrus Bowl in Florida in 1992 and hecklers greeted him with chants of "Buy American, Buy American."

Tien earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Louisville before moving on to Princeton, where he obtained a second master's degree and a doctorate in 1959.

That year he joined Berkeley's faculty. In 1962, he became, at the age of 26, the youngest professor to receive Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award.

He rose to full professor in 1968 and later headed the department of mechanical engineering for seven years. He was vice chancellor for research for two years, from 1983 to 1985.

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