Chancellor Carol Christ: In Chang-Lin Tien, a leader to emulate

Chin-Lang Tien shakes the hand of a young woman.

When he was UC Berkeley’s chancellor,  Chang-Lin Tien was known for wandering the campus and introducing himself to students, staff and faculty. “People felt warmth and connection whenever they were in contact with him,” says the current chancellor, Carol Christ. (UC Berkeley photo)

This week we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library and the Chang-Lin Tien Center for East Asian Studies — the latter named for Berkeley’s seventh chancellor. These events, for me, bring Chang-Lin even more vividly to mind. He was, of course, the first person of Asian descent to lead a major American research university. He was also an extraordinary leader, and an important model and mentor to me.

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When Chang-Lin became chancellor, in 1990, I was the provost of Letters and Science, under the two-provost system that Berkeley had at that time — a provost for L&S and a provost for the professional schools and colleges. In 1994, Chang-Lin reorganized his administration, and I became the provost and executive vice chancellor. I worked closely with him until he stepped down in 1997.

Since I became chancellor myself last year, Chang-Lin has been constantly on my mind; I’ve been particularly conscious of everything I learned from him about leadership. He was, as I said, an extraordinary leader; I’ve often tried to reflect on what made him so.

Chin-Lang Tien stand at a podium with Carol Christ on his right

Then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien speaks at a Charter Day event in the early 1990s. Christ, left, was then a top adviser to Tien, whom she has called a mentor. (UC Berkeley photo)

To begin, he knew how to create community. In a place as big and at times impersonal as Berkeley, building a sense of community is a difficult task. Chang-Lin did it in part by being everywhere. He walked the campus; he dropped in. I’m told his staff had a special telephone extension just for “Tien sightings,” so they could try to figure out where he was. He gave his personality — his ebullience, his energy — generously to those he greeted. Though his words were often few — sometimes simply a “Go Bears” people felt warmth and connection whenever they were in contact with him.

The defining event of the first year of Chang-Lin’s chancellorship was a tragic fraternity fire, in which five students died. Chang-Lin imagined how community members could mourn together and support one another — holding a meeting in Faculty Glade, talking with immediacy about grief. Tragedies followed with an eerie regularity — a shooting at Henry’s, the Oakland Hills fire. In each case, Chang-Lin understood how to change a public grief into an opportunity for shared healing.

Whenever you brought Chang-Lin a problem, he would say, ‘Give me three options.’ We learned to give him three options, and he always chose one.”

– Carol Christ

Chang-Lin also understood how to change an institution as unwieldy and bureaucratic as Berkeley. Through a combination of savvy choice of issues, decisiveness and delegation, he created a sense of effective action. I remember in particular one cabinet meeting at the beginning of a semester, when he told us how concerned he had been the day before on his walk around campus to see students waiting in numerous long lines. “No more lines,” he told the then-vice chancellor of student affairs, Russ Ellis, “No committees, no 12-month plans, just no more lines.” While not quite so simple as that, the message was clear, and Russ got to work. Whenever you brought Chang-Lin a problem, he would say, “Give me three options.” We learned to give him three options, and he always chose one.

Chang-Lin helped people feel good about Berkeley. This may seem simple, but it wasn’t. Berkeley is acerbic, ironic and critical, and the early years of his administration were ones of deep budget cuts. Chang-Lin’s enthusiasm and constant praise built and sustained spirit, from the playing field to the laboratory.

Chang-Lin had clear, forcefully articulated values. No one had any questions about what he stood for, or about his standards of integrity. His own experience of discrimination had made him passionate about equity and opportunity, and he had a powerful sense of the public trust. The money we allocated was the students’ money, he would insist, and it should not be spent loosely or carelessly.

Then Chancellor Chin-Lang Tien speaks to the media on his first day as chancellor. (UC Berkeley photo)

Chang-Ling Tien speaks to the media on his first day as chancellor in 1990. (UC Berkeley photo)

Finally, what most distinguished Chang-Lin was his sense of vision. Early in his administration, he articulated four goals — academic excellence, diversity, undergraduate education and community. All of us who worked closely with him occasionally got tired of hearing about the four goals, but we came to realize how fully they expressed his vision and created a shared, purposeful unity of direction. Chang-Lin often talked about image and its importance. At first I thought this was a superficial concept, but I came to understand that by “image” he meant a unity of being in the world through which people recognized and understood you. In this sense of image, he represented the idea of Cal.

At the memorial in Faculty Glade held for the students who died in the fraternity fire, Chang-Lin spoke of an idea in Chinese culture according to which the image of a person we take in with our eyes becomes embedded in our heart, so we carry a part of the person we have seen and known forever with us. I carry Chang-Lin with me in this way, as I know many in the Cal community do too.