Changing of the guard
Yien recalls campus history, awaits first sabbatical
April 17, 2006 —
Anyone who has known Bob Yien the past 36 years he has worked at SVSU will more than likely say he is much more than a "common person." But that is exactly how Yien describes himself.
"I always look at myself as a common person with an uncommon opportunity," he says. "I got lucky."
Dr. Robert S.P. Yien has been the vice president for Academic Affairs since 1978 and will be retiring from the position in July. It is a job he did not plan on having for anywhere near as long as he has had it.
"The appointment came very unexpectedly," he recalls. "At the time, I said, 'Alright, we'll see what happens.' Originally, I was thinking it would be for three to five years. But that three to five years turned into 28."
Yien was hired in 1970 as a sociology professor after he completed his master's and doctorate degrees at Michigan State. By 1975, the Taiwan native found himself in the administration, involved in the public service college. Three years later, he was VPAA.
The acceleration from professor to VPAA should not sound all that common, and it really isn't. But in talking about his history, it is clear why Yien believes he is such.
When Yien was 13 his father, who was at one point one of the richest men in Taiwan, went bankrupt. Yien recalls that his father went from wealth to bankruptcy in a mere three-year period.
"So I asked myself, 'What do I want to be?'" Yien recalls. "I wanted something that no one could take away, and that something was a degree from the United States to be a professor. I wanted a doctorate degree before I turned 30."
His father was curious as to how he could accomplish that.
"When I told my dad this, he asked, 'How are you going to do that?'" Yien says. "I said, 'Dad, don't worry about that, that's my problem.'"
Yien worked his way through college in Taiwan before going to MSU as a graduate student in 1965. He earned both his master's and Ph.D. by the age of 29.
First things first
When he was hired as VPAA, the school - Saginaw Valley State College at the time - had three colleges (arts and sciences, business, and education) and three schools (nursing, public service, and technology), for a total of six. Yien felt that number was too high for just 3,700 students, and wanted to reduce it to five.
At most universities, Yien says, arts and sciences are almost always lumped together in a college. But he wanted to go a different route and combine science with business, which would allow for his development of the engineering program in 1981.
Separating the two was not easy. Yien says he went through 18 meetings in nine months - some with two or three faculty and administration members, some with 10 or more - to explain why the separation was needed.
"My strategy was to wear them out," he recalls. "After all those meetings, I knew the time had come to vote."
Yien put it to vote in early 1979, and it ended at a 21-21 deadlock. As VPAA, he broke the tie. The next day, Yien says, SVSC had five colleges.
Name says it all
When looking back at the history of the school, Yien breaks it down to three simple stages: Saginaw Valley College, Saginaw Valley State College, and Saginaw Valley State University.
The original name of the school, of course, was SVC. The school's second president, Jack Ryder, included the "State" in 1975 to separate it from Delta College, Yien says. But Yien thought it needed to go one step further and told Ryder about it in 1984.
"I said, 'Jack, there is a difference between colleges and universities overseas,'" Yien says. "In the United States, there is no difference. But even in Canada, there is a difference."
Ryder questioned Yien's position, saying there was no difference.
"I said, 'Jack, there is a difference,'" Yien says sternly.
Yien made arrangements for him and Ryder to travel to China in 1985. When they reached an agreement with one of the universities there, it was sent to SVSC in both Chinese and English. On the Chinese contract, Ryder was listed as the "dean" of SVSC, while in English, it read "president."
"I said, 'Jack, do you know your title in Chinese is dean, not president?'" Yien recalls. "He said, 'No way, Bob, I'm the president.' Honestly, that's the beginning of his plans to change the school's name."
At the time of this discovery, Michigan had 11 state universities and four state colleges: SVSC, Lake Superior State College, Ferris State College, and Grand Valley State College. Ryder decided to form a coalition with the others and push for a name change. The change took two years, Yien says, but the school's name was finally changed to a university in November of 1987.
"From then on," Yien says, "there were no more state colleges in Michigan."
Giving back to the homeland
Yien points to another trip overseas as one of his proudest program developments. In 1991, he went to Taiwan and was approached by a group of young businessmen and women who said they wanted to have a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, but did not want to quit their jobs to go to SVSU.
To solve the problem, Yien, along with former business dean Jim Mitchell, established a Taiwan MBA program. The program would bring Taiwanese students to campus for two summers to take two classes for three to four weeks and send SVSU professors to Taiwan during the rest of the year.
Half of the students' courses were on the SVSU campus while half were taught by professors overseas, Yien says. He estimates that 17 SVSU professors taught in Taiwan over the program's 12-year period from 1991 to 2002. During that time, Yien says, the program graduated about 300 Taiwanese MBA students.
"If you look outside the state, the place with the highest number of alumni would be Taipei," Yien says. "That's very impressive. I love that."
28 years worth of change
SVSU, of course, has seen rapid growth in the last decade. Yien says he and his job have been impacted in several different ways. When he was hired in 1970, SVSC had just one building from which it operated.
"When we had one building, everybody knew each other - everybody," he says. "Now as we have grown, there has to be an extra effort for me to get to know people."
Yien says he walks around campus talking with faculty and students to solve this problem. Until recently, he says, those walks were about an hour and a half long. Now, when he makes his rounds, it takes nearly three hours.
During these walks, he has seen a makeover within campus.
"Our campus has transformed from a commuter campus to a residential campus," he says. "Until we had those beautiful housings, every day at about 6 p.m., the campus just went dead. People who came here were only commuters, came only for classes."
Yien says as recently as several years ago, barely any classes began after 6 p.m., especially on Thursdays. Now, he estimates that about 25 percent of classes begin after that time.
"This has become a real campus," he says. "Before if it was after six, there was nothing here."
In his 28 years as VPAA, Yien says he has hired 21 deans.
"Hiring deans is tough," he says.
Yien says that for the last five to six years, when he goes to national conferences for academic VPs, he has become more of a mentor, giving talks about how to hire deans, including the do's and don'ts of the process.
First and foremost, he says, he is "very straightforward" with his candidates. Yien says he must begin by telling candidates what SVSU has and what it doesn't have. He points to tenure as an example. SVSU does not offer tenure for its deans, but Yien estimates that about 80 percent of deans nationwide have it.
"Our deans, then, have to be really self-confident and comfortable," he says. If they are not, he says, he tells them not to come here.
Learning what Yien calls "the Bible," or the University's collective bargaining agreement with the faculty, is equally as important, he says. The quicker a dean can learn the contract, Yien says, is the better, because if they don't, they can get themselves in trouble by doing something "foolish."
When he has conducted interviews the last five years, Yien says he has told the candidates about his plans to leave, which he made in 2001. He jokes that when his latest hire, the College of Business and Management's Marwan Wafa, signed his contract, he told Wafa not to leave before Yien retired. Doing so, of course, would mean Yien would have had to go through another search for a dean.
A planned-out decision
Yien's decision to retire from his administration position was not a tough one, he says.
"All my life, I have had very well-planned steps," he says.
When he turned 60, Yien decided he did not want to leave as a member of the administration. He decided he wanted to step down at 65 and go back to being a full-time sociology professor until he is 67.
"That's all part of my plan," he says.
He won't be making the transition from VPAA to professor immediately, though.
"I haven't had a sabbatical while all of my colleagues have had six or seven," he jokes. "I want to have my sabbatical, then I want to go back to teaching. My plan is at the end of 2007, I will bring my career to a close. By that time I will be 67, and that's about the right time to enjoy the golden life."
During his sabbatical, Yien says he and his wife will travel to China and elsewhere. He says he wishes to simply get away from being a seven-day-a-week worker. Preparing to go back to full-time professor status will take two to three months, he says.
When he retires completely, Yien says he and his wife will stay in the area for four or five years then move to Portland, Oregon, where his two sons reside. He already owns a condominium in the area.
Yien says once he is retired, he does not want any more obligations.
"What I'm looking for is something I don't have to have planned," he says.
A gloomy future?
Dr. Don Bachand, who Yien hired in 1978 and is currently the dean of the College of Arts and Behavioral Sciences, will be replacing Yien in July. Despite the challenges he's faced - reducing the number of colleges, a name change, etc. - Bachand's new job might be even tougher.
"The best skill Don has is his people skills," Yien says. "For the University to go beyond this point under the negative circumstances that we see every day in the newspapers, what it takes is going to be somebody who has the people skills to put together synergy."
Yien addressed the Board of Control a week ago and gave the Board his thoughts on next year and beyond. With the University facing a possible decline in enrollment for the first time in its history, Yien is not optimistic.
"For SVSU to grow, we are not going to be able to do that," Yien says. "We have to work hard to maintain what we have. Forty-four years of growth is going to come to an end."
He emphasized this point to the Board, adding that there has not been any growth in the state's population in the last 30 years.
"That's just the surface," he says. "If you look one step underneath, you will be really scared if you are in our business."
Yien points to the fact that 23 percent of the state's lost population is in the 24-to-39 age group. Looking even deeper, he says 29 percent of the Saginaw Valley region's lost population is in that age group.
"That is the most important category of the population," Yien says. "It counts for two things here. One is people in graduate school and the other is their kids."
Just as he is with his potential deans, Yien was straightforward with the Board.
"I told them we are looking at a possible decline for years to come," he says. "Four years ago we predicted we would reach 10,000 students by this year. I don't think we're going to make it at all. Last year, we had almost 9,500 students. This year, we'd be lucky if we bring in 9,400.
"Nobody could have predicted this five years ago," he says.
Despite his lack of optimism for the future, Yien has talked with Bachand about a solution.
"I keep telling Don that he needs to try to put together our human resources and develop a program in the summertime to catch people who are coming back for summer," Yien says. "I tell him to use the summer program and (the new) online program. We may also have to start sending our faculty overseas again."
Doing that, Yien says, would "stop the bleeding. Otherwise, we'll continue to bleed. Then you can try to try to reverse the trend. But that is not going to be easy at all, because of the outside circumstances."
He adds that while the graduate program may be lacking, the undergraduate program can still be developed.
"Don can still make this a very good undergraduate institution," Yien says. "The faculty need to emphasize the value of an undergraduate education and deliver it. If we can emphasize responsible teaching, the word will get out and we will separate ourselves from the other universities."
When Yien moved into the VPAA office, SVSC had about 3,700 students, 95 faculty members, and 55 programs. Those numbers have jumped to over 9,500, 260, and 93, respectively.
"I would say almost all academic programming since then, I have either been directly involved or indirectly involved in," Yien says.
For a job that was supposed to last just three to five years, Yien has instead served as vice president for Academic Affairs for 28 years.
Common that is not.