Few faculty members are closer to the undergraduate experience at UC Berkeley than George Chang, an associate professor emeritus of nutritional science and toxicology who began teaching at UC Berkeley in 1970. Chang, 71, and his wife, Abby Jang, a Cal alumna, have lived in a three-bedroom apartment in Unit 2’s Towle Hall since 2005. They’re inaugural members of Berkeley’s Resident Faculty Program, which grew out of a campus-wide effort to bridge the social gap between students and educators. Among other things, Chang, a graduate of Princeton University and UC Berkeley, has taught Tai Chi and hosted a newspaper-reading activity he calls “Papers with the Prof.” He recently started a Facebook study group. He can usually be found at Crossroads dining commons, holding court and eating “family style” with Abby, students, faculty members and staff. His welcoming, wise and impish presence at Cal dining and housing gathering spots will be sorely missed.
Why did you opt to live among students?
I told my late wife, “I’d like a dozen children.” She said, “If you want that many, you’ll have to bear them yourself.” It’s very exciting to watch young people learn things, to see how their brains work. So while my late wife refused to have a dozen children (they had four), I now have 3,000 of them.
What surprises you about today’s undergrads?
I always hear about how today’s students are digital natives who are in touch with everything all the time. But it turns out that Berkeley is so large that it’s hard to be aware of everything that’s going on. We have a number of events, and it always surprises me how little students know about what’s happening around them.
That said, maybe they’re focused on other things. Biology dictates that humans must find suitable mates and plan for the future, so it makes sense that, for freshmen, most of their brainpower is focused on meeting people, evaluating people and deciding with whom to be friends or partners. That’s healthy.
How do you handle noise in the residence halls?
Sometimes students create a real ruckus in the wee hours of the morning, and that’s a wonderful time to tease them. The fact that I’m in pajamas probably says enough, but I can’t resist saying something like, “You’re exactly the kind of student I want. You study hard until the wee hours in the morning, and in the wee hours of the morning you blow off steam. I want you in my class.” By the time I’ve finished, most of them have melted away.
You’re a scientist. How did you get involved in student life issues?
What attracted me to the resident faculty program was a desire to improve the student environment. Coming from Princeton to Berkeley in 1963, I noticed a huge difference. At Princeton, they took great pains to make every student feel part of the place. Professors talked about traditions, and we all felt very much part of the place. As a faculty member in residence, I wanted to bring some of that sense of tradition and community to students in the residence halls.
What major changes have you seen in undergrad culture?
When we first moved in to the residence halls, a lot of students thought I was just some random homeless person. Now a lot of students say, “Hello professor.” That’s a very big change for me. They know who I am.
I’m a faculty brat (my father was a college professor in Wisconsin and New Mexico) so I was never intimidated by academia or by professors. I’m still amazed by how students are afraid to talk to their professors, even though it’s advantageous to connect with them. I’d like to see that change.
Another big change is the advent of social media. When we first moved here, I wasn’t interested in Facebook at all. Students kept telling me, “You need to get on Facebook.” So I was dragged kicking and screaming onto Facebook. Immediately, I made a lot of connections. Then I started my own Facebook group for study tips and it turned out to be very popular with almost 4,000 members.
What student encounters stick out in your memory?
There was one student who seemed to be perpetually angry, and he used to sit down with us at dinner at Crossroads and say things like, “I’m so angry with my professor. I’m so angry with my GSI.” After a while I asked him, “Is there one thing you’re happy about?” He said, “I’m glad I saw you here.”
There was another student who was crazy about prime numbers. We’d be eating breakfast, and he’d say, “Oh Professor Chang, I just thought of a new property of prime numbers.” Now, I’m not a mathematician, I don’t know anything about prime numbers, but it was wonderful to see his enthusiasm.
Any early influences that stand out?
I remember riding a bus through the Deep South in the early 1960s, where some of my friends were registering people to vote. I talked openly about why black people should be allowed to vote. A knot of people formed around me. When they left the bus at a rest stop, an elderly white man reached over and tapped me on the shoulder. He said, “Young man, you seem like a fine fellow, but you should realize it’s dangerous to talk like that in these parts.” It wasn’t much later that three voter registration volunteers were murdered. I could have been one of those people if that man hadn’t warned me.