As a young boy growing up in war-torn South Korea, Steve Kang had no idea of the future that would await him, 6,000 miles away, in a small city called Merced.
Kang's date with destiny unfolded Tuesday, as he was officially inaugurated as chancellor of UC Merced, becoming the first Korean-American chancellor of a major American research university.
The 62-year-old electrical engineer was joined by some 700 well-wishers in the school's academic quad, as University of California President Robert Dynes presented Kang with the system's Chancellor's Medal, officially naming him the university's top executive.
Although Kang has been on the job since March 1, Tuesday's ceremony provided the invitation-only audience an opportunity to salute the school's new chief. "Landing in America in 1969 as a foreign student from Korea, I could have never imagined that my life journey would lead me to this special place at this exciting time," Kang beamed.
Dignitaries and guests at the event included chancellors from six University of California campuses, as well as founding UC Merced Chancellor Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, members of the UC Board of Regents and large who's who collection of local elected officials. A letter from South Korean Deputy Prime Minister Kim Shin-il congratulating Kang was also read during the ceremony.
During his inaugural address, Kang remarked on several milestones the university has accomplished since opening its doors in 2005: attracting $40 million in federal, state and other grants; enrollment on the upswing and an increase from three graduates in 2006 to 57 graduates in 2007.
He also spoke about UC Merced's future, using climbers George Anderson and Sally Dutcher, who climbed Yosemite's Half Dome in 1875, as examples of humankind's ability to accomplish meaningful goals despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. "Academic pursuit can be compared to the climbing of Half Dome. The excursion of learning and discovery is pioneering and life-enriching and it lifts us to new a altitude," Kang said. "At UC Merced, we are building the other Half Dome as the 21st Century model university."
The next five years of Kang's climb as chancellor won't come without its own rocky slopes and dangerous peaks, however. The university must still obtain a wetlands development permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand the campus beyond its existing 105 acres. The school also has long-range plans to establish a medical school.
In addition, Kang must also work hard to boost student enrollment at UC Merced -- particularly because millions in state supplemental funds the school receives are due to expire in 2010.
UC Merced has received the $14 million in supplemental funds each year since it opened its doors in 2005. The university collects $8,657 a year from the state for each student -- and the $14 million state supplement is expected to shrink to $10 million during the 2008-09 fiscal year. Those funds will fall to $5 million until 2010, when they will completely disappear. Unless student enrollment picks up, UC Merced could experience a projected $17 million budget shortfall by the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Dynes said on Tuesday that UC officials will likely have to approach legislators in Sacramento to help support UC Merced until it can fly on its own. "Ultimately it's a state responsibility to help us get this campus up and going," Dynes added.
Kang said he will probably spend more time approaching community colleges in order to help boost the number of transfer students to UC Merced. "We need to work not only with the community colleges, but high schools as well -- and let them know the opportunities they have at UC Merced as a research university," Kang said.
Before beginning his tenure as UC Merced chancellor, Kang was dean of UC Santa Cruz's school of engineering. During his time as an engineer with AT&T Bell Laboratories, he was noted for leading the development of the world's first 32-bit CAMS microprocessor and peripheral chips. He holds 14 patents, has published more than 350 technical papers and has co-authored nine books.
Despite Kang's many accomplishments, the fruits of his labor did not spring from the most fertile of ground. He grew up poor in South Korea -- and his father was kidnapped by the North Korean Army during the Korean War. As a result, his mother raised three children on her own.
Even with those challenges, Kang eventually made his way on a scholarship to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., where he received a bachelor's degree. He would move on to receive his master's degree from State University of New York at Buffalo in 1972 and his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1975.
Since becoming chancellor, Kang has also become popular with several students on the campus, as he and his wife, Mia, are regularly seen talking to students on campus to listen to their concerns. He also holds regular office hours with students and staff. "He and his wife are very approachable and easy to talk to," said Uday Bali, undergraduate student body president. "You can ask any student at UC Merced and they will probably have a similar experience."
The event's keynote speaker, Arno Penzias, who also worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories, said he was optimistic about UC Merced's future under Kang's leadership. Penzias is an astrophysicist and winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in discovering the Big Bang theory of the universe. "There's a key role here for students who don't know what can't be done," Penzias said.
The inauguration ceremony was followed by a scholarship luncheon in the school's Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center.
As a part of the inauguration festivities, a symposium on the topic of Technology and Society, featuring UC Merced professors Michelle Khine, Jay Sharping and Yihsu Chen will take place at 2 p.m. Thursday inside the school's California Room. The event is free to the public.