BOTHELL — Bjong Wolf Yeigh could have done anything with his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a master’s degree from Stanford.
Naturally, he joined the Navy during Desert Storm.
“I’m an immigrant, so it was my way of giving back before I got too old,” Yeigh said.
Yeigh, 49, became the new chancellor at the University of Washington Bothell last fall, just the third chancellor the campus has had since opening in 1990.
Born in South Korea, he first passed through Seattle at age 11 when his family immigrated to the United States.
“Just as people look at Ellis Island as they’re flying into New York, the Space Needle was our landmark as my family was flying into Seattle,” he said.
Yeigh — who has gone by his middle name Wolf since the Desert Storm days — has four degrees in engineering and plans to teach the subject in addition to his administrative duties.
“I think we’re faculty first in a way,” Yeigh said of college administrators. “Otherwise why would we go to graduate school? I’m looking forward to engaging and interacting with students. After all, that is our core business, isn’t it?”
After four years of active duty, Yeigh spent four more in the reserves, during which time he earned another master’s and a Ph.D. from Princeton.
He has remained in academia ever since, working at six universities in the past two decades.
He most recently held a position as president of the State University of New York Institute of Technology.
“We really appreciate that he has experience at a lot of other institutions around the country,” said Susan Jeffords, vice chancellor of Academic Affairs. “He has wonderful networks of people that he can call on as resources. Within just a short time, we’re already able to learn about best practices or good ideas from other institutions and try to see if they would be helpful for us at Bothell.”
Jeffords says working with Yeigh has been “a blast.”
“He has tons of energy,” she said. “He’s a very inclusive leader. He really likes to hear everyone’s ideas. He’s very open in discussing new ideas and options.”
An engineer-as-chancellor is a good fit for UW Bothell, which will launch computer engineering and mechanical engineering degrees next year.
Last summer, the school received a six-year stamp of approval from ABET, an accrediting board for engineering and technology. The accreditation is expected to expand job opportunities for graduates and halve the time it takes them to get licensed as professional engineers.
The presence of the state’s largest employer, Boeing, was a draw for Yeigh.
He’s been near the aerospace giant before, having served as the dean of the College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at Saint Louis University, which is 30 minutes from the Boeing Defense, Space &Security unit.
But the chancellor says that’s just one of many booming industries that lured him to this area.
“Right here in Snohomish County is a hotbed of biomedical and biotechnical companies. Put a pin on the campus and draw a 10-mile circle around it — you can fit over 120 or 130 biomedical companies. Was that a draw? Absolutely. Also, Providence Health is here in Snohomish County. Health care is a big deal.”
UW Bothell recently partnered with Everett Community College for a nursing program called “1+2+1,” which will allow students to attend their first year of college at UW Bothell, the next two at EvCC and their senior year back at UW Bothell.
Still, what most attracted Yeigh to the Bothell campus was that he related to the students.
“You look at the composition and the makeup of our student body, I could personally identify with them more so than any other institution where I’ve been,” he said. “Half of our student body happens to be first-generation college students. Half of our student body comes from under-represented groups. What this institution is doing to serve them, and to serve the community, that probably had more impact than anything else.”
He says the university is focused on raising enrollment rates for these under-represented groups, which are identifiable by visible characteristics such as race and gender, but also by inequalities in income and social status.
“Our admissions counselors are in schools sitting down with prospective students from these under-represented groups, unpacking what the college application process is all about. Our students volunteer to go back and work with other students from their high schools,” he said.
One program even sends UW Bothell admissions advisers out to Marysville Middle School to talk to kids as young as age 11.
A quarter of UW Bothell’s 4,600 students come from Snohomish County.
“By helping our students gain access to higher education and attainment of their baccalaureate degrees and advanced degrees, I think we could really shape a more diverse workforce. A lot of people are talking about it, this is one of those campuses that is doing something about it,” the chancellor said.
Another one of his missions: promoting under-represented clothing.
“He’s a bow tie guy,” said Kelly Snyder, assistant vice chancellor for Government and Community Relations.
A purple-and-gold UW bow tie is Yeigh’s new trademark, and it’s one of a kind.
“There isn’t a University of Washington bow tie anywhere,” Yeigh said. “I had a University of Washington necktie and I sent it out to be converted into a bow tie.”
Yeigh lives with his wife, Sandy, in Woodinville. He has a studio in their home where he does woodwork, making Adirondack chairs out of lumber from cherry trees he cut down when he lived in Vermont.
“It’s great therapy,” he said. “I didn’t want to just cut these trees down and use it as fuel. When I was in junior high, back then we had industrial arts, so I took a couple of those courses. It was fun, so I kept on doing it.”