By Jay Blanton
University of Kentucky faculty member Connie Wood accepted a collect call in 1989 from a student a world away who was in need of a connection and a path forward.
For Bing Zhang, the willingness of a director of Graduate Studies to accept that phone call and offer help in a time of need has made all the difference in a life’s work and, now, what has been a lifetime of giving back.
Flash forward more than 30 years.
Today, President Eli Capilouto is recommending that the UK Board of Trustees accept a $6.35 million pledge Zhang is making to the university’s Department of Statistics, where he received his doctorate a generation ago. Capilouto also is recommending that the board approve naming the department the Dr. Bing Zhang Department of Statistics at the University of Kentucky. UK’s University Senate has voted in favor of the proposal to name the department for Zhang.
It is Zhang’s way of both giving back — and paying it forward — for efforts UK made to help him in his graduate education decades ago. The gift, a culmination of a number of donations he has given to UK and the department over the years, will focus on graduate education, specifically the creation of an endowed chair named for Zhang, travel and research support for graduate students and a visiting professorship, among other initiatives.
Dreaming of such support wouldn’t have been possible decades ago for the young man from the countryside of Jiangsu Province in China. He had applied to graduate programs at 10 different universities.
None of them — except UK — offered help in the way of financial aid or an assistantship in teaching, the kind of experience a graduate student needs to succeed. UK’s Graduate School and longtime professor and the department’s director of Graduate Studies, Connie Wood, offered help. The paperwork and assistance were in order.
But Zhang needed to finalize arrangements. In 1989, there was no email. So, he called UK — collect. Wood answered.
“Dr. Wood told me that I was accepted with a teaching assistantship and that the documents had been sent to me by FedEx,” Zhang recalled recently. “I was really excited to hear the great news. I applied for a passport and visa … and came to Lexington on September 13th.”
Unfortunately, Zhang had arrived at UK two weeks after school started, and his assistantship had been offered to another student. Once again, Wood stepped in. She arranged a new teaching assistant position the next day. “And I wasn’t sent back home,” Zhang said.
Zhang flourished at UK, diving deep into graduate statistics courses and work, tutoring in English, pursuing an active life in the department and experiencing life among a growing Chinese student population on campus and in the community. Later, joined by his wife, Rachel, they lived in a series of apartments and homes in the area. Two children were born in Lexington, “so they are Kentuckians,” he said.
“My statistical knowledge was almost nothing when I started studying at UK,” Zhang said. “I learned a lot of statistical theory at UK and got a high-quality education at UK that has led to a successful career and a fulfilling life for me. So, I’m really proud to be a member of the UK family, and I appreciate the high-quality education.”
“UK always welcomes students around the world with open arms,” Zhang said in explaining his continued support for the university and the statistics department. Zhang also wishes to “encourage more alumni and international alumni to give back to UK and help future students.”
Armed with a doctorate from UK under the mentorship of Professor David Allen, Zhang worked for statistical consulting and pharmaceutical companies before striking off on his own, forming multiple companies that help with the strategic planning for drug development, the design of clinical studies, and the statistical support in analyzing how drugs can save lives and treat diseases.
“We are thrilled and honored by the generosity of Bing and Rachel Zhang and their desire to give back to the University of Kentucky. By any measure, statistics at UK is on the rise. Graduate enrollment, stipends and grant and research productivity are increasing. With this momentum and a rich, 52-year history, the Department of Statistics is poised to enter the next tier of excellence with Dr. Zhang’s support,” said Mark Kornbluh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “This gift will significantly enhance the reputation of the department and that of the College of Arts and Sciences. Future statistics graduate students who come to the university seeking the same quality education Dr. Zhang received will now benefit from this gift.”
Over the years, Zhang has supported the department philanthropically, funding faculty positions and graduate students. He also has helped a number of students from UK find internships in clinical trial research and, ultimately, placement in jobs.
“This gift from the Zhang family will provide immediate and long-lasting benefits to our department. The recruitment of quality graduate students has become a very competitive enterprise. To continue to recruit students of the quality of Dr. Zhang, we need an edge. The Zhang family gift, focused on graduate education, helps provide us that edge,” said William Rayens, chair of the Department of Statistics. “The majority of the gift will be used to attract the best graduate students available and to incentivize those students to make timely progress toward their degrees. We are humbled he thought about us and cared enough about our program to make this long-term contribution.”
“A Chinese proverb teaches us that we are able to rest in the shade of trees planted by others a long time ago,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “Bing Zhang has not only taken that lesson to heart, he has spent a lifetime living it out, for his family and for others who made a difference for him at UK. This gift, and his incredible and gracious sense of generosity, will benefit students and those they teach, treat, help and heal for generations to come.”
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion three years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" two years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for four straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.