Napolitano ushers in new era for UC Davis
Gary May, University of California (UC) President Janet Napolitano’s pick for the next chancellor of UC Davis, marks a welcome change for a university plagued in recent years by careless leadership and avoidable controversies.
May, who earned master’s and doctorate degrees from UC Berkeley, and who currently serves as the dean of Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering, will start his tenure as chancellor on Aug. 1, provided the UC Regents vote to approve him on Thursday.
Like former chancellor Linda Katehi, who resigned last year amid backlash surrounding her moonlighting activities on the boards of for-profit universities, May will likely bring to UC Davis a special focus on STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He will also be responsible for ensuring that as UC Davis’ student body grows, and as its campus becomes more prominent in Sacramento, that it does so in a sustainable and effective way.
“[May] was chosen from an extraordinarily talented pool of candidates because I believe he’s the right person to guide UC Davis to even greater heights, advancing academic and research initiatives, building a stronger community with students, faculty, and staff, and furthering relations with the larger Davis and Sacramento area,” Napolitano said in a statement.
May has cited his experiences as a Black man in the sciences to highlight the need for and benefits of more inclusive academic environments. May spearheaded initiatives to enroll more minorities and international students in the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. He has notably argued that diversity should play a larger role in how universities are ranked by the U.S. News & World Report.
Such leadership is long overdue at UC Davis, where African Americans only made up 3.5 percent of the student body in 2016. May would become UC Davis’ first African American chancellor, and the only one to currently serve in the UC system.
By picking May, Napolitano signaled that she wants to keep attention centered on developing UC Davis’ already-strong STEM programs. It’s a noble goal, but she and May must understand the importance of liberal arts to a public university’s mission.
May has written on the need to keep the arts separated from STEM fields. While his point that combining the humanities with the sciences “dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM” is reasonable, that argument does not necessarily preclude the fact that the sciences don’t exist in a vacuum. It would benefit students of such disciplines to further understand the ethical, historical and sociological implications of their studies — especially in a political environment that seems to value objective facts less and less.
This political environment has also made college campuses — and especially UCs — hotbeds of protests, activism and all the tensions that can arise as a result. May remains largely untested in dealing with these issues, and he would be well-advised to treat demonstrators with respect while simultaneously fostering a commitment to freedom of expression.
There are positive signs he will. In an email to students at Georgia Tech after President Trump’s immigration ban, he wrote, “the College [of Engineering] remains committed to diversity and inclusion, and we continue to value the intellect and talents of scholars from around the world.”
But May still must take immediate steps to hold himself to higher standards of accountability and transparency than Katehi, whose tenure was marred by efforts to scrub the internet of pepper-spray references, allegations of nepotism and a host of other ethical questions.
If he does follow through, the Editorial Board is fully confident in May’s ability to take the pragmatic and responsible approach to higher education that UC Davis students deserve.