Gary May answers questions about first quarter in office
The Editorial Board sat down with Chancellor Gary S. May last week to speak about current plans for UC Davis, challenges he faces and the future of the university. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been meeting with people throughout the UC Davis community over the past few months, and through that you’ve also been meeting various legislators. Could you tell us about what you hoped to accomplish?
As a newcomer, I think it’s incumbent upon me just to listen in my first few months here and not come in thinking I know all the answers. I wanted to get a feel for what the campus community and the surrounding community thought about Davis, where we stood and where we should go, things they like, things they didn’t like. I’ve set up this listening tour and it started this summer with mostly the non-academic administrative units, and then after classes started I’ve been doing the academic units, and then sprinkled in there have been student organizations, alumni, clubs, government officials, et cetera. So, basically just to hear what people think and try to shape the agenda.
And can you tell us a little bit about your recent trip to DC and what you specifically hoped to accomplish with that?
I was at the American Association of Universities presidents and chancellors meeting. AAU is the 62 top research universities in the country and that’s a regular meeting. As it so happened, while we were there, some of the DACA stuff was bubbling up, and we got a request from Senator [Chuck] Schumer from New York to be part of a press conference about DACA. He asked the UC system and he asked the SUNY [State University of New York] system in New York, as two of the states that are most significantly affected by the rescission of DACA. Since this other AAU meeting was ending, I think I was the only chancellor who was staying and I was asked to be a part of the press conference, and I was happy to do that. Basically, we reiterated our support for our DACA students and called on Congress to take some action and then took some questions from the press.
One of the goals you’ve spoken frequently about is raising UC Davis’ prominence on the global stage as well as the national stage. What factors are you thinking of when you’re talking about global prominence?
There’s a lot of ways to define that, but essentially I think we want the students to have an appreciation for the global context in what they’re learning and that we want to be a sort of a thought leader and a voice and a place where people ask what are we thinking, what are we doing. I think we’re already a voice […] in agriculture. You can’t go to any farm in the world without finding some UC Davis connection. But we want to kind of formalize that a little bit more, so we’re thinking about things like remote campuses and research alliances and collaborations and exchange programs, and a lot of that’s going to happen through [UC Davis] Global Affairs and Vice Provost Joanna Regulska’s operation. We have this big idea that you may have heard of called “global education for all.” She’s leading, along with several faculty, but I’m interested in supporting it.
While working with projects like remote campuses and research collaborations, how does that intersect with raising our prominence while still maintaining student experience by things like teacher-to-student ratio and class sizes?
Those two things aren’t directly related, but I think I will say that participating in some of these activities — study abroad, work abroad, service abroad — are definitely what we have in mind for student participation and broadening the whole educational experience at Davis. The student-to-faculty ratio is most closely related to our ability to hire more faculty and staff to meet the enrollment growth, and those two things don’t necessarily intersect. We like the global activities to be what I’ll call revenue neutral, in that we don’t want to do anything that’s going to end up costing us money. We’d like to find a few things that would generate revenue, but I don’t anticipate that those two concepts will intersect too much.
Speaking of hiring faculty, there’s somewhat of a national issue that’s also impacting the UC with dwindling numbers of tenure track positions and universities increasing their dependence on both adjunct faculty and contingent positions. They tend to offer low pay and little job security and lots of faculty turnover. Do you think this is a problem or is it just the natural direction of universities?
I don’t think it’s a problem. Not yet, anyway. I think one of the ways you mitigate the workload and reduce the ratio is by hiring non-tenure track instructors, and those are a little bit easier to identify and to hire. Those are not what are called “tenure-track,” or “ladder-faculty” I think they’re called here. They tend to be more temporary and less expensive and those sorts of things, which I think is usually okay because in many cases folks like that are not necessarily looking for a permanent role, and if they are they certainly can apply for a different status as their situation evolves. The idea is to leverage presence of such individuals to help with the teaching and with some of the other activities that would benefit the educational process of the students.
Do you at this time have a plan to address Davis’ housing crisis?
You know, we’re still working on it. We have three projects underway right now. At the Regents meeting last week we got the Emerson project onto the next step, and our goal is to affordably house as many of our students as we possibly can. We’re hoping that the city of Davis will be a good partner for us.
Many STEM students find that they’re unable to register classes or get the classes they need because of people wanting to graduate in four years and these departments being so overcrowded. How much influence do you have over finding solutions for that problem?
Not as much as you’d think. The curriculum and everything associated with the curriculum, including scheduling, is really the purview of the faculty senate. And I can certainly express my opinion and try to exert influence, but it’s really not in my decision-making power, with exception of how we allocate resources for budgets and things to hire. I do want to at some point have a bigger discussion about the graduating in four years thing, because I came from a place that was very STEM-focused and the average graduation time was around 4.8 years, almost five years. That was okay, because students were doing co-ops, internships, studying abroad and doing these other things that were enriching their experience. I think four years is a good goal. I have my daughters, I told them four years was a good goal, but if it spills over a little bit I don’t think that’s a disaster, because I think the main thing is to have as positive an educational experience as you can. At some point, when you’re looking for a job, you’re employer’s not going to ask you, “How long did it take you to graduate?” They want to know, “What do you know, how good are you and are you ready to contribute to my company?”
A question about your “To Boldly Go initiative”: In addition to what measures are being taken so students are aware of the initiative, what would be the incentive for fourth years to be involved if the changes are more long-term?
Student involvement is pretty straightforward: We have a couple of graduate students and a couple of undergraduates on the steering committee. It’s not going to necessarily impact you if you’re graduating this year, but we hope you’re always going to care about what happens at Davis and what happens in the future. 10 years from now when you have your diploma and you look back, however Davis is doing at that time will impact you. If Davis has moved up from ranked number 12 in the U.S. News, if we’re up to number three, you can say “I graduated from the number three public institution,” and so I think hopefully we’ll still be important to you. And also I’ll be asking you for money — [laughs] — for years and years and years, so look forward to that.
How do you think that the UC system justifies its strong stance in support of sexual assault prevention and awareness while remaining silent on UC Regent Norman Pattiz’s recorded sexual harassment allegations?
The truth is the Regents have no way of removing each other. They’re all appointed by the governor. They have limited ways they can censure each other, so if any action is to take place, it really has to take place at another, higher level. The sexual harassment, sexual violence and all those sorts of things […] have been condemned by the Regents and actually by all the campuses individually as well. His particular case, I don’t have enough details. I will say he’s pretty adamant that it’s being mischaracterized. I’m not saying I believe it or not believe it, but he certainly feels that way. I don’t know what will result in the long run from the complaints about him, but I certainly feel that there’s no place for sexual harassment or in any part of the university system.
What do you foresee as your biggest challenge in the near future and in the long term?
The biggest challenges always revolve around resources. I hate to boil everything down to money, but the truth is, and I may have said this in our last meeting, although the state has tried to become more supportive in recent years, the reality is that they’re writing about 9 percent of our overall budget, and if you add the tuition in, it’s maybe 20 percent. So we’ve got to do other things to make up for the other remaining 80 percent, and that includes research, that includes philanthropy, fundraising, it includes other initiatives, auxiliaries in the state and various other things. We’re going to have to get more involvement and more success in raising the resources we need to be prominent. In a microcosm, on a small scale, I just had a meeting with a donor in athletics, where basically the gist of the conversation is, “If you want to be a Division I program we need Division I donors,” and I would extend that to say if we want to be a top five university we need top five donors. Right now, our alumni participation in giving is about 7 percent. Even the best public universities are up in the twenties. So it’s going to be hard to get much higher than that. But you look at the privates, they’re at 80, 90 percent. So we’ve got to somehow get over this hurdle that prevents you, when you graduate, from wanting to continue to be a participant, financially and otherwise, in the success of the university.
You mentioned that state support has dwindled for quite some time, but especially now. Do you see that as a natural direction that the university will move to having very little state support?
I really hope not. We do have various efforts through the Office of the President and various other government relations people, and we are in this constant mode of asking our elected officials to continue to help us to get better. So we’re in this box where tuition increases are not looked favorably upon, and yet we need to provide the best possible experience for the students, and so we don’t have many other degrees of freedom. And so we hope that the legislature will be responsive to that.
If the state isn’t amenable or taxpayers aren’t amenable to funding the UC at higher levels and you don’t want to raise tuition, do you think there are ways that either the UC as a whole or campuses on their own can reallocate money in different ways?
Well yeah, we have to make some decisions ourselves. We have to be mindful of costs and efficiency and make some tough choices. We can’t do everything and be all things to all people, and so that’s another part of this planning process. In addition to deciding where we’re going to focus on where we’re going to be great, we’re going to have to, in parallel, decide where we’re going to choose not to be great. I’m not going to predict what those are going to be, but those are going to be tough decisions.
What do you think are possible steps that could be taken to address [the “It’s okay to be white” fliers recently found on campus], because we’ve seen this across the country.
I’m not sure. I struggle with it. You know, even when I wrote that article for you guys, my internal debate was whether to respond at all, but I decided that I should have some kind of response, and a measured, thoughtful response, not sort of an emotional, over-the-top response. Because I think that’s kind of what the provocateurs want, is the emotional, over the top response. But at the same time, I realize students want to hear from the leadership when things like that happen, and I need to make people feel that we have your best interests at heart and there’s no place for white supremacy or whatever type of negative sentiment that’s being expressed. I’m bringing this up so that you can tell me if you think that there are different things that we could or should do.
Do you feel that, as chancellor, you’re more inclined to be reserved in putting some kind of emotional input into responses to sensitive topics?
It’s a tough call. I’m, by nature, not very emotional. Spock is my favorite character, so someone has to push me to do that if it needs to be done, usually. I’m much more methodical, logical, what we’re going to do as opposed to catering to feelings. But I know that some people want that or need that, and so I do struggle with that. At the same time, I want students to understand that when you go out into the workforce these things are going to happen, and there’s not always going to be someone to make a statement condemning something or to make you feel warm and fuzzy. I don’t want to sound like I’m a cold and unfeeling person, but sometimes you just have got to be tough. I’m a person that’s been called names. Racial epithets have been hurled at me in my life, and my family, and I try not to let those things stop me. It’s been a good approach for me, this strategy, and I think it’ll be a good strategy for others [who] are impacted by it.
We’ve received several guest opinions expressing that UC Davis hasn’t been vocal enough against some of the cases of anti-Semitism in the community recently. How would you respond to this criticism?
That one puzzles me too, because when the incident happened at the [Islamic Center], we responded within a week. I think it was a couple days. I guess some people want a stronger response. I’m not sure what form that would take, but I think it was pretty clear that we have no patience or tolerance for anti-Semitism on the campus. That particular institution is not part of our campus, so I don’t know that we should be in the box where we have to respond to everything anybody says anywhere in the surrounding area. We’d be doing that every day, all day. It would be helpful if those people that are critics would elaborate and specify what they want and what they think the result would be. I don’t think we should be in the business of responding to every single thing that happens. I think we should be in the business of education.
Written By: The Editorial Board