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A Chancellor’s Choice

Ask the University of California, Merced chancellor whether he misses teaching day to day, and his answer leaves no doubt:

“Yes, I definitely do,” says Dr. Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang. “But we’re here to make contributions in many ways, and to a greater society. As leaders, we have influence.”

An electrical engineer by training, Kang hopes greater numbers of Asian American college faculty will aspire to executive positions such as his. Asians made up 7 percent of the professoriate in 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but by the following year, they made up less than 1 percent of college presidents. “Some of the most outstanding scholars are Asian, but they’re often very humble, and don’t seek the spotlight,” Kang says.

Yet Kang, who has held the top job at Merced since 2007, insists career ladder climbs can still offer routes alongside one’s academic passions.

For instance, Merced, the newest of the 10 UC campuses having opened in 2005, offers electrical engineering only as an interdisciplinary graduatelevel program. Kang currently supervises a small group of postdoctoral researchers, an endeavor he cheerfully describes as his “moonlighting hobby.” And, during six years as engineering dean at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Kang served as faculty sponsor of the National Society of Black Engineers student chapter at one point because UCSC lacked a Black engineering professor who could fill the role.

“It’s true, there’s a self-satisfaction one gets from research or academics or art,” says Kang, who holds 15 U.S. patents in electrical engineering and has written or co-authored nine books. “But as professors, we have to ask ourselves, what impact am I making?” As UCSC engineering dean, he grew a nascent program into a well-respected school, doubling the size of the faculty and increasing the volume of scholarships and research grants.

Kang received the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builder Award in 2007 from Morehouse College. He also received the Chang-Lin Tien Education Leadership Award that year from the Asian Pacific Fund. At the time of the latter award, one of his mentors noted on the APF Web site that Kang’s accomplishments were no surprise. “I witnessed his superb ability, creativity and diligence in action,” said Dr. Ernest Kuh, Professor Emeritus in Engineering in the Department of Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where Kang earned his doctorate in 1975. “I encouraged him to pursue higher academic positions.”

Kang has taught at various institutions, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories, where as a technical supervisor he led development of the world’s first 32-bit microprocessor chips.

Had Kuh and others not urged him to seek leadership positions, Kang doubts the notion would have occurred to him. But now, Kang believes engineers can ascend more easily than some might think. “Microchips rely on hundreds of millions of transistors. If transistors aren’t connected properly, the chip can fail. Similarly, we can have excellent students, faculty and staff, but we as leaders have to ensure the community as a whole won’t fail.”

Merced is about 120 miles southeast of San Francisco. There, Kang presides over 2,700 students, many of whom are first-generation college-goers from low-income families. In fall 2007, more than 40 percent of undergraduates received Pell Grants. About 33 percent of students are Asian American and 30 percent are Hispanic. Merced’s Black enrollment of 7 percent is among the highest of UC campuses.

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