Chancellor May –– UC Davis officially has its seventh chancellor


May discusses plans for coming year, controversial positions on external boards related to defense industry, achievements at Georgia Tech, hopes for university

Today, August 1, marks Gary May’s first day as the seventh chancellor of UC Davis. Several separate meet-and-greets with UC Davis students, faculty and staff members as well as members of the media have been planned at the North Lawn of Mrak Hall and the Welcome Center in Davis and at the UC Davis Health Education Building in Sacramento.

May, who has spent almost three decades at Georgia Tech as both a student and  faculty member, moved to Davis on July 24 with his wife, LeShelle. Upon his departure from Georgia Tech, leaving his position as Dean of the College of Engineering, May was honored with over a dozen goodbye parties. May said he is committed to creating the same kinds of close relationships he has fostered at Georgia Tech at UC Davis, though he acknowledges it will take time.

“Both LeShelle, my wife, and I, from a very early point in time, will be trying to meet as many faculty, staff, students, alumni, Davis community [and] Sacramento community members as we can,” May said. “[I am] just trying to be as open and accessible as I possibly can –– I don’t plan to turn down any requests for meetings. I have to listen and learn about the place. I know what I’ve read, but it’s always different hearing it from the people who are there, experiencing the university.”

May outlined several long-term and short-terms plans for the coming year, from fostering business ties between Sacramento and UC Davis to earning the university more recognition on a national scale as well as immediate action to fill open positions on his team.

“What I’d like to do is have the campus start thinking about strategic planning and […] where we want to be in the next five to ten years,” May said. “We’re already a top public university, but I think we can aim higher, I think we can raise the level of visibility for the campus.  We just need to be a little bit better about telling our story and bragging about ourselves to the rest of the state, the country and the world.”

May was visited by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg in Atlanta about a month ago to discuss plans to maximize the university’s presence in California’s capital.

“We’ve had really good success here in Atlanta, with Georgia Tech partnering with the city and the business community to put innovation centers very close to the campus,” May said. “Sacramento is 11 miles away, […but] if we can overcome those transportation issues, we can build a really strong partnership with the city of Sacramento. What I’m thinking about and dreaming about is […] a place for business entrepreneurship and innovation –– something that becomes a win-win for our campus and for the city of Sacramento.”

Addressing university-related issues he will face in the coming year, May said plans are currently being formulated to help alleviate the consequences of a growing student body –– consequences including higher rents in the community and larger class sizes.

Furthermore, one especially relevant issue at UC Davis and many college campuses nationwide is the handling of hateful speech on campus.

“We have to have, at our universities, the ability for people to express popular and unpopular points of view,” May said. “We can’t inhibit that. Now at the same time, our primary function is to educate the students at the university and we can’t have a place […] where anyone feels so inhibited that they can’t perform academically. You can talk about whatever you’d like to talk about, you can give speeches, you can have rallies, but if you’re promoting an […] environment that inhibits the learning of other students, that’s where we have to draw the line. I’m a big believer in free speech, but I also think that students should feel like they have a safe environment to work and study in.”

ASUCD President Josh Dalavai said he is hopeful and excited for the coming year with May as chancellor.

“I’m excited about fresh perspective,” Dalavai said. “I think that he’s definitely bringing a lot of new ideas to the table. I hope that he sees students as an important stakeholder on campus, which it definitely seems like so far [is] the case.”

After May’s selection as chancellor, both Dalavai and ASUCD Vice President Adilla Jamaludin met with the Mays. The meeting took place before The Sacramento Bee ran an article announcing Gary May’s positions on the boards of Leidos, a technology and defense company, and Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a defense, technology and medicine lab –– and the near $300,000 he earns from the positions.

“I was slightly disappointed in [regards to] the board involvement, especially with the nature of what it was,” Dalavai said. “I understand that it was Georgia Tech and that his involvement on those military external boards was correlated to the academic missions of the university and career employment and internship employment opportunities for students. That being said, it was still something that was somewhat concerning.”

Following the publication of the article, May requested to meet with both The Aggie and the students who planned to –– and later did –– protest at the Pack the Patio event to discuss his board positions. Students at the event called May a “war profiteer.”

“I think that’s a really unfair characterization,” May said. “My great-uncle was a Tuskegee Airman, my sister works at Boeing in the defense part of the company in St. Louis and many family members have had military service –– I think that’s honorable.  I don’t find that to be objectionable in the least, and I know that there will be people that will disagree with that position, but I hope there’s room for various points of view at UC Davis and [that] we can agree to disagree.”

May also added that Leidos does not build or deploy weapons. Leidos is involved in such areas of defense as “airborne intelligence” and simulation technology used in the U.S. Army. Additionally, May said he feels the salary he earns sitting on these boards is not related to his professional role as chancellor.

“I don’t really think […] the money I receive from boards should be a concern from the Davis community, unless somehow that was taking away from my performance as chancellor,” May said. “I’ve been on this board for two years now, […and in] my last performance review as dean, the provost said this is my best year. Clearly, board service does not detract from, or at least has not detracted from, my performance in my day job.”

May is open to discussing his board positions; he said transparency is a personal priority of his.

“Transparency is my style,” May said. “I try to explain my decision-making process […] and give the rationale very openly. Not everyone will agree with the decisions I make, that’s unrealistic, but I think at least people will understand my thought process and rationale and won’t feel like anything was done under the table.”

During the chancellor-search process, some students were frustrated with their lack of involvement; ASUCD passed a resolution calling for greater transparency in the process. As dean at Georgia Tech, May said he met with an undergraduate and graduate student advisory council monthly to discuss student issues; May said he is planning to involve student voices in a major way as chancellor.

“We’ll be sure to make sure that students are represented on search committees for high-level leadership positions,” May said. “I also have two student [representatives who are] basically my liaisons to the rest of the student body; I’ll meet with them regularly. I’m a very big believer that students should be involved in all aspects of student life.”

Additionally, on his personal Facebook account, May has begun to accept all UC Davis students –– his friends list totals over 3,200. As a result, May said people can have access to him “in a different format than they might otherwise have.”

May also remained involved and actively engaged with students at Georgia Tech through the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science (SURE) and Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science (FACES) programs he created. For his efforts with these programs, May was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from former President Barack Obama.

“SURE […is a] ten-week, undergraduate research experience, targeted at underrepresented minority students, but open to all students,” May said. “The ultimate goal is to get those students into graduate schools. Over the life of this program, more than 500 students have participated, about 75 percent –– based on our last longitudinal study –– have gone to graduate school.”

May, who attended Georgia Tech as an undergraduate student, said he was the only black student in “many of his classes.” The first black dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, May is also UC Davis’ first chancellor of color.

“I think it’ll be a visible symbol that UC Davis praises diversity,” May said. “But I stress to people –– I’m not the dean of the black students, I’m not going to be the chancellor of the black students. I’m going to be the chancellor of the university. My responsibilities will be broader than that, but they will also have to pay attention to that very important role I’ll have as an advocate and a champion for diversity.”

Having met both members of the faculty and staff population as well as the student population, May said he feels UC Davis is “a very impressive place.” One of the main differences, he said, between Georgia Tech and UC Davis is that student activism has a very minimal role at Georgia Tech. Dalavai said he hopes May will embrace the student activism of UC Davis.

“It’s a large part of the culture here and I think a crucial part of the culture,” Dalavai said. “Oftentimes when the ‘proper’ channels fail to establish accountability, it’s student activism that carries that burden.”

Having experienced student activism firsthand during his initial meeting with the general student body, May said he hopes his board involvement does not “become a distraction” and that the UC Davis community will judge him based upon his “performance as chancellor.”

“I’m very flattered that I have the opportunity to be in leadership here,” May said. “It’s really going to be an exceptional opportunity not just for me, but I think for the university. We hope to make Davis one of the […] handful of universities that people think about when they think about the nation’s great public research universities. I’m looking forward to joining the community of Davis and becoming an Aggie.”


Written by: Hannah Holzer —