Central Valley

Kang's humility, skills seen as good fit for UC Merced

MERCED -- Steve Kang has become a road warrior.

In the first year of his chancellorship at the University of California at Merced, Kang has put more than 20,000 miles on his university-funded car -- a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid that he and wife Mia made sure to purchase at a Merced dealership.

The extent of Kang's travels is a part of the job -- he's leading the newest UC campus and the one with probably the largest and most underserved area, a stretch of 240 miles from Stockton to Bakersfield. He's journeyed to meet with politicians, school leaders, business owners, donors, community members and alumni to see how UC Merced can better serve the area.

Each Central Valley town will play an important role in UC Merced's success. The university was placed in Merced to serve valley students, and to add to valley residents' quality of life through an educated populace and research specific to the region's needs, such as agriculture and air quality.

With a little more than 1,800 students attending UC Merced in its third year, the university's second chancellor has his work cut out for him. Administrators originally projected 3,000 students on campus at this point.

The clock is ticking, as extra start-up funding from the UC will disappear in two years.

System President Robert Dynes and the UC regents have faith in Kang, who taught at colleges across the nation, led engineering teams at AT&T's Bell Laboratories and built up UC Santa Cruz's school of engineering as dean. His ability to get people on board and to network for research and funding partnerships makes Kang, 63, a good fit to take UC Merced out of infancy and into maturity.

A different kind of leader

Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who stepped down as founding chancellor to return to teaching, is remembered for her stiff demeanor and commanding presence. (After going back to the classroom in 2006, Tomlinson-Keasey quietly retired in June, moving to Georgia. She couldn't be reached for comment.)

"Carol had the skills to build the university, Chancellor Kang has the skills to build it up," said Josh Franco, student body president in 2006-07 and a public pol-icy graduate.

Dwarfed in size by many of UC Merced's students, Kang carries himself more passively than most university presidents, but has a vigorous determination that shines through his understated blue and gray suits.

Kang is soft-spoken and humble. Does that mean he'll be steamrolled by faculty and administrators?

"He's disarming, but I'll remind you, he built up a school of engineering at UC Santa Cruz through focus and humble expression," said Dynes, Kang's boss until Dynes' scheduled resignation in June. "You don't need to be overly or physically aggressive to get what you need to get done."

Kang said he believes the best leaders are those who earn trust by example.

"You have to be part of a team. If you're too aggressive, you won't get what you want," Kang said. "I believe in servant leadership. I'm not into punitive leadership. People will bring out their best when they're happy."

That includes students, with whom he tries to mingle during what little free time he has outside of events and committee meetings. Kang eats lunch with students in the cafeteria, attends sporting events, invites student leaders to his house for barbecues, and tries to hold open hours each semester so the average student can come in and have his ear.

In February, those students asked Kang about offering more summer classes, the high cost of printing lecture notes required by some professors, and how they can get internships in his office.

One Korean-American student showed up, telling Kang about deciding to transfer from UC Riverside for the chance to be at a campus led by another Korean-American, Kang said. The chancellor related the comments from notes he took in a gold-rimmed journal he takes with him almost everywhere.

"(Tomlinson-Keasey) never really went to small events. Chancellor Kang goes to everything. I think that's why he's so popular among students," said Brenda Ramirez, a psychology junior.

Kang was a guiding light for the campus community in March 2007, when the university suffered its first student death, Franco said. Freshman Hector Hugo Barrera-Barraza fell down a flight of stairs near his dorm after drinking too much alcohol.

"His calming nature and tender words were very helpful. ... It was a crisis, and he handled it like a chancellor should -- measured, straightforward and calm," Franco said.

Perhaps the only complaint about Kang is how busy he is. While students, faculty and community members agree that he's approachable, they also say his calendar is heavily booked.

"His job is so far-reaching; he's got a huge responsibility in terms of research, in terms of the existence of the university," said Linda Lopez. She is a field representative for U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, and knows Kang through her membership on the board of Merced's Community Partnership Alliance.

Kang's first big accomplishment came in October when the university announced that it would alter the planned expansion of the campus and adjacent university residential community. Administrators were having difficulty securing approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to build on land north and east because of vernal pools and the endangered fairy shrimp that inhabit them.

"I initiated (the revision) by coming in and asking the right questions," Kang said. "We need to build the campus, we need the plans to do it. If we wait longer, are we going to get the permit? This is important for student and faculty recruitment. We need a plan everyone can believe in and can have conviction in. This is a much better plan."

University leaders submitted the revised application in February and hope to hold public forums in the next several months.

Capitalizing on his international experience, Kang has traveled to other countries and been the host of foreign convoys to set up partnerships or sister-campus relationships, which bring research collaborations, exposure to different cultures and opportunities for enhanced study abroad. Those links include Russia, Brazil, Korea and Pakistan. Kang hopes to move into Mexico next.

As Kang embeds himself in the campus and valley community, his wife is by his side most of the time. Mia is retired and has become an ambassador to the larger community. Mia is on campus several times a week and accompanies Kang to most events.

Kang also has provided a vision for UC Merced's future, said Shawn Kantor, economics professor since 2004 and chairman of the university's Academic Senate.

"He's getting us to look at where we're going academically through a planning exercise. It's like 'What do we want to do when we grow up?' " he said. "It's hard to sell yourself to donors, the regents, the legislators if you don't know what you're doing."

Goals and plans

Kang's next several years will affect the university's ability to thrive.

UC President Dynes said he wants to see Kang improve student enrollment numbers. Kang said new construction will help house more students and attract top-notch faculty with the offer of spacious research facilities. With its two classroom buildings, UC Merced has run out of space for professors and staff. Upcoming projects include a social science and management building, a second science and engineering building, and expansion of the cafeteria.

Kang said offering additional academic workshops on campus, sending more counselors to area high schools, and producing more service learning projects in which university students volunteer at local schools and organizations will help recruit area students.

Attracting students and professors to the valley is a challenge (competing with colleges in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Davis and Berkeley), but as the campus and Merced community evolve to offer more amenities, administrators hope that obstacle will be diminished. To help keep students, Kang said he wants to focus on tutoring.

Kang also is expected to move a medical school closer to reality. UC Merced officials have completed a preliminary proposal and business plan that is under review by campus faculty and medical school experts.

Though it may be a decade before UC Merced enrolls its first medical students, Kang must continue planning and secure funding for the endeavor. With less-than-average access to doctors and health care in the Central Valley -- which he has experienced firsthand since moving to Merced -- Kang said this project is one of his top priorities.

Focus on students urged

A common complaint among UC students is that professors are more focused on research and their résumés than on teaching, UC Merced students said.

"I wish they'd screen the professors a little more," Ramirez said.

Kang agreed that teaching takes a back seat to research at most UC campuses, but said he stresses the need for professors to be there for the students. Though faculty energy is heavily spent on research and public service to help establish the university in its first years, "We need to pay more attention to student success," Kang said.

As UC Merced grows into its own, some students and community members have expressed concern the university will leave behind its Central Valley roots and cater to the rest of the state. After nearly two decades of planning for a 10th UC campus, officials settled on the Central Valley hoping a UC campus would bring the college-going rate up to par with the rest of the state.

About a third of UC Merced's students come from the valley, a third are from Southern California and a third are from the Bay Area. Kang said the university still is small enough to accept all valley students who are eligible, and that aiming for the one-third threshold for valley students is a "well-balanced profile." The university is planned to accommodate 25,000 students in 40 years.

UC Merced needs to get more valley applicants qualifying for admission for change to be realized.

"When students see successful students, that makes a lot of people want to come to campus," Kang said.