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Chang-Lin Tien

"I never really dreamed I could be chancellor of a major university. I feel it is now my responsibility to uphold the American dream for everyone."

— Chang-Lin Tien


Campus memorial service: Even in death, Chang-Lin Tien illuminates and inspires
15 November 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

Berkeley — Friends, family and colleagues of Chang-Lin Tien packed Zellerbach Hall on November 14 for a memorial service honoring the beloved former chancellor. Listening to the many heartfelt tributes, even those who never met him knew that this perpetual motion machine not only advanced UC Berkeley's spirit and opportunity, but was the finest example of them.


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The service mixed sadness and humor as the speakers painted a vivid portrait of a great leader, world-class researcher, savvy strategist, inspiring mentor, loyal friend, demanding teacher, proud Asian American and doting father, all rolled into one man.

"Never does it cease to amaze us, the number of lives that he touched," said Tien's son, Norman, looking out with wonder at the huge crowd. Added Norman's young son Christopher, peeking over the top of the Zellerbach podium, "A lot of people knew him. It was kind of neat that he was so famous. His picture was even in my social studies book."

Like lightning

Each speaker remarked on Tien's appetite for activity, whether scholarship, fund-raising or cheering on the Golden Bears. "Chang-Lin Tien burst into our consciousness like a bolt of lightning — bright, electric, full of energy," said Chancellor Robert J. Berdahl. Tien's daughter Phyllis claimed that she never saw her father sleep — he regularly worked 12-hour days — although she often caught him snoring in the movie theater. "I think that was the only time he could catch up on his rest," she laughed.

"He knew full well that a leader can never get tired, never get down, but must always bring hope," said Dan Mote, Tien's second-in-command for several Berkeley posts and now the president of the University of Maryland.

Tien was an irrepressible optimist even in the face of adversity. "He will forever be remembered for his ringing challenge, 'In crisis there is opportunity,'" said Berdahl, recalling how Tien met UC Berkeley's state budget crises of the early 1990s with steadfast determination to find the money elsewhere.

This attitude applied equally to Tien's personal circumstances: as a young immigrant from Taiwan in the U.S. on a student visa, he received a letter saying he might have to wait 142 years to get a more permanent visa. When Tien told this story, Berdahl recalled, he always laughed and said, "They thought this would discourage me, but it just gave me an incentive to live longer!"

Laughed often and loved much

Friends and family recalled Tien's devotion to his students, and how Tien, an avid matchmaker, sported the widest smile of all at the wedding of two of his graduate students. A man full of unabashed exuberance, he once led a conga line dance through the kitchen at a students' reception. He loved seafood (crabs in particular) but spicy food above all. He would absolutely douse his soup with pepper, marveled young Christopher Tien, then "stir it up and put even more in."

Ernest Kuh, electrical engineering professor emeritus and dean of Berkeley's College of Engineering when Tien was on the mechanical engineering faculty, said that even as a young professor Tien showed great organizational talent and the ability to get things done. Kuh emphasized Tien's importance as an unofficial ambassador to Taiwan and China and remarked that, although Tien's English-speaking style may have occasioned some humor, his speeches in Chinese were the epitome of eloquence and widely admired. As was Tien himself: "Walking down the streets of Taipei with Chang-Lin was like walking in Chicago with Michael Jordan," Mote recalled. "People ran out of shops to greet him; all the hotels tried to get him to stay with them."

Kuh closed with a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, "That Man is a Success," which seemed tailor-made for Tien:

  That Man is a Success

Who has lived well,
  laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect
  of intelligent men and the love of children;
Who has filled his niche
  and accomplished his task;
Who leaves the world better than he found it,
  whether by an improved poppy or a perfect poem
  or a rescued soul;
Who never lacked appreciation of earth's beauty
  or failed to express it;
Who looked for the best in others
  and gave the best he had.

Tien was devoted to Berkeley and there is no doubt he left it better than he found it, even down to the landscaping. As he walked through the campus on the way to appointments, he would pick up trash. "He loved this place," said his son, Norman. "It was his home." Tien was a "true environmentalist," agreed daughter Christine Tien, before breaking into a smile. "He never threw anything away. He always said, 'I can still wear that!'" His leather briefcase, for example, was battered to the point of exhaustion, inspiring several replacements as gifts. But Tien insisted it was fine; he just wrapped masking tape around the handle again and again until the tape was two inches thick, his daughter recounted.

Our 'academic father'

Former doctoral student Rochard Buckius paid homage to Tien's teaching gifts. "Each time he presented an idea it was with a sense of discovery and enthusiasm. He always had a story that made the ideas come to life. And this was engineering!" said Buckius, who is now chair of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's mechanical engineering department. Tien mentored more than 60 doctoral students, some even while he was chancellor, Buckius noted. "Many of us have used the phrase that he was our 'academic father.' Learning to be a scholar from someone who was the ultimate scholar — what a gift."

Chang-Lin Tien
John Blaustein photo

Chang-Lin Tien

More stories, photos, and videos about the remarkable life of Berkeley's Chang-Lin Tien


Buckius quoted several of his favorite "Tienisms" illustrating the former chancellor's inspirational style: "He was forever asking, 'Any new ideas?' and telling us 'Go to extremes,' 'Ideas should be crazy enough to be rejected by your peers,' and 'Sometimes the simple solutions have the greatest impact.' He would often say 'You need total immersion,' and he meant it — he'd also say 'You need to dream of your research while you sleep!'"

Concluded Richard Atkinson, president of the University of California, "As a faculty member, he achieved the ideal balance of teaching, research, and public service."

Faster, smarter, better

Tien was simply "faster, smarter, better than everyone else," summarized Mote, after reciting a few of Tien's achievements and "firsts" — such as racing through his Ph.D. at Princeton in a record two years; at 26 becoming the youngest recipient of Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award; and becoming the first Asian American to head a major American research university. "He was the complete strategist. He always knew where he was going and exactly what steps it would take. He thought through the consequences of every action."

Tien had extraordinary political instincts about what it would take to be chancellor, continued Mote. Tien predicted that, since he was a rather diminutive, glasses-wearing engineer, Cal's legion of alums might question his support for athletics. When he assumed the chancellorship after a brief stint at UC Irvine, he quenched any such doubts with his passion and support for the Golden Bears. Tien was famous for pacing the sidelines at football games and showing up at even minor sports events. He concluded every public address and many private conversations with his signature staccato "Go Bears!"

Mote told the story of how in 1991, when he was Berkeley's vice chancellor and the Golden Bears were playing in the Citrus Bowl against Clemson University, he had the task of introducing then-chancellor Tien at a football dinner. After hearing the way the football players were being announced, he intoned into the microphone, "Chang-Lin Tien: height 5 feet 5 inches, 145 pounds. Can bench-press the Berkeley campus and the city of Berkeley to boot!"

After the dinner audience roared with laughter, Tien bounded to the stage. "His first words were, 'I'm 5 feet SIX!'" Mote recalled. "Once again he set me straight."

Turning more somber, Mote told how Tien had always advised him that it was important to keep an eye on the future, and not stay in a job longer than you could continue learning from it. "He believed that it was important to leave the party before everyone starts looking at their watches," said Mote. When Tien stepped down at age 62 from the post of chancellor, before he was diagnosed with the brain tumor that ended his life, he had immense opportunities ahead of him. "We all have to accept that Chang-Lin Tien has left too early." There was a catch in Mote's voice.

The memorial service was punctuated with moving musical interludes, from the Cal Jazz Choir opening with "We May Never Meet Again" to Chi-Yuen Wang, professor of earth and planetary science, who sang the otherworldly beautiful Chinese aria "How Could I Not Miss Him" accompanied by physics professor Raymond Chiao on piano.

After the final speaker and a brief video showcasing Tien's life, Berdahl played a clip of Tien's trademark sign-off, "Go Bears!" Then, with a trumpet blast and pounding drums, the Cal Marching Band poured into Zellerbach Hall. The audience rose to its feet, clapping and cheering along to the "Fight for California" — an electrifying close that captured the living legacy of Chang-Lin Tien.