Chancellor answers questions about student activism, union negotiations,accessibility of on-campus mental health care
The California Aggie sat down with Chancellor Gary S. May on Tuesday, June 5, to speak about the successes and shortcomings of his first year as chancellor. He also addressed student concerns over the funding of centers such as the Cross Cultural Center, access to on-campus mental health care and ongoing bargaining negotiations with the UC. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The California Aggie: How has your first year been as chancellor?
Gary May: It’s been exciting, informative, I’ve learned a lot, met a lot of really interesting people [from] all aspects of the campus — students, faculty, staff, alumni, leaders, administrators. It’s been really fulfilling and I still feel like it’s a great opportunity for me [to be] in a place that has so much potential. It’s already very good, some would say even great, but I think it has more potential.
TCA: I’ve noticed that you and LeShelle [May] have managed to stay very busy. How do you engage with the large and diverse Davis community and student population?
GM: I think it’s important for people in leadership roles to be visible and accessible and approachable. I’ve tried to do that since the beginning, and LeShelle has been a great partner for me. She’s also gotten involved in things in the community — not just on campus where she’s gotten involved in sexual violence stuff and women in STEM kind of stuff — but she’s also on the Girl Scouts Board and KVIE board. We’re both very energetic and enthusiastic about being visible. I’ve tried to extend that to the rest of the campus leadership with the shadowing program. One of the things I noticed very early is that there was a lack of knowledge among the students in particular, but even the faculty too, about what we do as administrative leaders and whether we add value or not. And from the student side, more trust kind of issues that there’s a bit of a deficit in that had been built up over the years for various reasons. I’m trying to rebuild that [and] I think being visible is an important part of that.
TCA: Can you give me an update on your task forces on housing, food security and mental health care?
GM: I wish I could. Reports are all due June 30 and I haven’t really been getting status updates. I did go to one of the housing task force meetings because they wanted to meet with me and talk more directly because there’s so much going on there. My sense is they’re all in various stages of data gathering and preparing recommendations. I’m hoping they’ll give us something we can act on in the next budget cycle because we’re holding some resource places for each of those groups. Obviously, scope is important because we’re not going to build a new dorm in the next budget cycle — we’re already working on three projects. I’m hoping the housing folks will come up with something that’s a little more immediate that we can do, whether it be just information about where housing is or something we can do about the affordability issue. The other two, I expect mental health will probably have some pretty actionable and direct recommendations. […] And I think we’ll be able to respond to those pretty quickly. Same thing for food security, we’ve already put the Aggie Compass in place and we’ve been working on helping The Pantry out with some philanthropy and I won’t say too much about it publicly, but we have some significant donors in our sights.
TCA: To what extent did The Aggie’s coverage on mental health care and resources influence your decision to create a task force?
GM: I certainly read all of your articles and was very interested in the topic and had heard from other students about it, some of the student activists are on my Facebook feed. […] And it’s an important issue for me as well. From a personal standpoint, my daughter had gone through counseling. I know this is an important issue nationwide and not just at UC Davis. And quite frankly, I was concerned [about] our accountability and stewardship of the resources. I’m not sure we did everything we were supposed to do the right way. I think we’ve got that rectified now, but I think we need to own that some things were mishandled. We did make some personnel changes and re-righted the ship if you will — I think. We’re going to be doing some hiring, appropriate number of counselors, not just the number but also the availability and scheduling aspect of students being able to get counseling. I think we’re on the right track now.
TCA: With the additional funds for hiring new counselors and expanding mental health resources, students are still faced with long wait times for psychiatry and psychology appointments. Is achieving accessibility of care a matter, from your perspective, of examining how the funds are being used or increasing the investment in student mental health?
GM: It’s probably a little bit of both. […] The audit results that we got said our counselors weren’t seeing enough students [and] number of appointments per day was low and that was because they were doing more programmatic stuff, that I’m not saying was bad stuff, but was leaving the clinical part of their jobs undone or not done as effectively as it should have been. The reason why it’s a little bit of both is I think as we add more people, there’s more people available to do programmatic and clinical. I think the wait time issue is not just a matter of human resources but a matter of the systems we use to schedule.
GM: We have to be careful, because as a 501(c)(3) organization, we’re prohibited for campaigning for individuals or for campaigning for ballot measures, however we think this would be a useful thing for our students to have more housing. I think everyone can agree on that. We did enter into an MOU with the developer to put a roadway between downtown and the development, should the ballot measure pass. We are supportive and we hope it works out. […] We’ve heard the concerns from some of the community about the air quality. […] We’re not overly concerned about it. I think it’s a valid thing to investigate, but we think that question has been answered. We just hope that the Davis city community will be more accepting of the fact that students are in this predicament and will be sympathetic to that.
TCA: I wanted to talk a bit about student activism and advocacy on campus. I know you said, at the beginning of the year, that student activism was minimal at Georgia Tech. What has your reaction been to the amount of activism that goes on on campus?
GM: It’s still a lot more here than I’m used to. Whenever the end of my chancellorship is, if I can say that I’ve improved the level of trust and reduced the adversarial us vs. them between student activists and administrative leadership — it’s probably never going to be zero — but if I can reduce that to a manageable amount, I would have had some success. I’m still working on that. I know there have been some recent issues. I think it’s better, I don’t think it’s perfect yet. What I’d like to do is to get our student activists vectored into a more constructive mode. I don’t want this to sound patronizing or like I’m putting them down, but sometimes it comes off as making noise and having tantrums [rather] than, ‘What can we do, constructively, to change this situation?’ For example, when the tuition hike was first proposed, we had some activists here in Mrak [Hall]. I met with them afterwards and I invited them to help us be a part of the advocacy efforts in Sacramento to get the legislature to buy out the proposed tuition increase. And I was hoping they’d taken advantage of that. I was really disappointed that they didn’t. Some ASUCD and other student leaders did go with me to meet some members and I think we did have some really positive effects. But the students who’d been protesting were not really a part of that, unfortunately. I’m going to keep trying, I don’t want to be the enemy. I don’t want the administration to be the enemy. Although some of those students do say and do some things to demonize me and others. But that’s really not the case. I think we all sort of want the same things and I’m proud of the fact that we were able to get the tuition buyout through the legislature. […] I’m looking forward to the day when student activists view the administration as a collaborative partner. We’re not going to always agree, there’s going to be things we’re going to disagree or butt heads on, but I hope we’re not automatically viewed as the enemy.
TCA: Recently, you shared a link on Facebook to an LA Times article about funding boosts to the UC from the state and you thanked student advocacy. Do you include the student protesters who sat-in at Mrak Hall in that thanks?
GM: I include any student who took whatever action to influence the legislature — if they wrote, letters, if they went to the Capitol, to Sacramento either with me or on their own, in their own organizations, or anyone who raised awareness about the issue. To the extent that they did help raise awareness about the issue, sure. But as I said, I think it could be more constructive.
TCA: Do you feel it was justified that these students were placed on disciplinary probation?
GM: Those students were disciplined not because they protested, they were disciplined because they spent the night in Mrak Hall which is a violation of policy. I think that policy is a good one, and I’ll give you a couple of reasons why — when that happens, we have to bring an officer to stay with the students and kind of supervise. That particular officer could be doing more helpful things out on the campus instead of spending the night with the students. One of the clerical staff here shared with me that she felt unsafe because of the folks spending the night and some of the signage, the wording in the sign, was provocative and she herself felt like this wasn’t the safest environment. I understand the students need to be heard, want to be heard, but there are ways to do that. Ultimately, all they wanted to do was meet with me which, as any student knows, if you ask for an appointment you can get one generally with me when I can get to it. That was not the right way to go about it in my opinion.
TCA: My colleagues and I still don’t have a solid grasp on the Aggie Square project. Would you be able to provide additional, clarifying details?
GM: Aggie Square is, first and foremost, an economic development project designed to help us take our research from the laboratories to the market place more efficiently, that’s really the primary goal. Along with that, there will be many components — there will be an academic component, we’ll be teaching classes and perhaps even delivering degrees there as well as doing professional education there like through the extension. There will be research centers of various types there, there’ll be incubators and start-up facilities for new companies there. There will be landing places for big company partners that want to collaborate with us on research and hire our students and collaborate with each other as well. Peripherally, there will be housing, retail, venues for perhaps art and music and perhaps restaurants. It will be a whole sort of ecosystem devoted to, first and foremost, this economic development motivation. We’ll cooperate with the community and engage that community. There was an article in The Bee right after we announced it in April, maybe a couple of weeks after, […] warning the community not to gentrify. Nothing could be further from our intent. [….] We’re working pretty closely with the community precisely to avoid those kinds of issues and we’ve got people on campus who are experts [in] community development. We’ve also tapped into their expertise.
TCA: In on-going bargaining negotiations between the UC and AFSCME as well as between the UC and UPTE, individuals have accused the UC of bad faith bargaining. Do you share any concerns over the current state of bargaining with the UC, especially in light of the recent strike?
GM: My biggest concern is that we haven’t resolved it. Students should know that the way the UC does the bargaining, there is a bargaining team in Oakland at the Office of the President that works directly with the officers and the chancellors are not involved. And that’s a source of frustration, some frustration for me, but the fact that the people that work here at Davis are in this negotiation and I can’t take place in it is kind of a source of frustration. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about that and people think that me as chancellor or a UC Davis person has some role, but we don’t. I would like the students to know that I’m a supporter of collective bargaining, I’m the son of two union members. My mother was the teacher’s union, my dad was the postal workers union. I walked picket lines with my mother as a kid and held her sign when she was taking a break. I do believe in that method of bargaining. The biggest thing I want to come across is I’m hopeful that a resolution can be reached as quickly as possible and we can get back to the business of the university.
TCA: Many students voiced frustration over the $77,000 cut to the Cross Cultural Center’s budget this year. Do you think the university should increase its funding into student resources on campus moving forward?
GM: We’re actually in the midst of budget hearings now, each of the units on campus [that] report to me are presenting to me and that includes Student Affairs. […] I think it was unfortunate that cut was made. I think that decision came as a result of an overall set of cuts the university had to enact to fill a $30 million budget hole from last year. We cut people here, from the office of the chancellor. I think everyone did, but that was a more student-facing organization, so students saw that and didn’t see all of the other stuff that was [cut]. I don’t know if we can restore that specific cut, but I’m hoping we can strengthen certainly those centers, all of the centers, not just the Cross Cultural Center but centers that serve various demographics in our student body and make sure that they’re on sustainable footing going forward. We’re still listening to the presentations and kind of deciding how to allocate our limited funds the best way we can.
TCA: A lot of students advocates have brought up concerns with lack of transparency from UCOP. From your perspective, is there more the UC Office of the President or the UC Regents can be doing to maintain transparency with students?
GM: I need to know more about what they think is missing, like Regents meeting minutes are published, they’re broadcasted so you can watch it. I don’t know what more students are looking for in terms of transparency. I do think there’s a certain expectation that a lot of things are going on behind the scenes and sometimes there really isn’t. I would invite students who have questions to ask me or whoever to see if we can get the information to them.
TCA: What lasting impact do you think you’ve already had on the university?
GM: I think I have a long way to go, certainly, but I hope that one thing we’ve done is to make this office more visible and student-friendly and approachable. The lasting impact will be determined. I think Aggie Square, when it’s realized, will be a transformative thing. The strategic plan which, the draft will out Friday, will have sort of a framework will have at least 10 years worth of impact. I think in some sense just my selection as chancellor has meant something to a select group of students as the first African American chancellor and they’ve kind of told me that directly. I think it’s opened some doors for the future.
TCA: What do you think have been your greatest successes and shortcomings this year?
GM: I’m very excited for the traction Aggie Square has received from all four corners. No one has said it’s a bad idea, no one has tried to stop any of it. I think we’re had some real success in fundraising, we’ll probably end up at around $230 million this year […] which is pretty good for a first year considering I came two months into the year. All of the various rankings have, by and large, moved in the right direction. I think the general campus climate is better, still not perfect. I’m anxious to see what the task forces come up with so we can continue to address these basic needs students have and I think students can see we’re paying attention to those things maybe more than perhaps was visible to them in the past.
TCA: What are your plans for next school year and beyond?
GM: Next school year, we’ll start executing the strategic plan. That will be very important. For example, when we next do the budget this time next year, we’ll be asking all of the budget owners to tell me how this aligns with the strategic plan, how they’re moving us in the direction we said we all wanted to go. We’ll continue to emphasize the fundraising that we need to do. The culture of a public university has changed significantly and particularly a UC where we used to think the state would provide everything and it doesn’t, and now we need to depend on private sources and other sources to build buildings and to do various programs and to fund scholarships and fellowships and do the things we want to do. […] I think we’ve got our leadership team in place with a couple of exceptions.
TCA: Additional thoughts?
GM: Thank you for giving me this platform to share my thoughts with the students and I hope we’re moving in the right direction in terms of the relationship we have with the students, not just The Aggie, but the students at large. I hope people will share with me when there are gaps or things we can do better, because we can always do better. But do so in a respectful and constructive way.
Written by: Hannah Holzer — firstname.lastname@example.org