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Davis, California

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Guest: Chancellor May fails our university community through problematic investments

Gary May sits on the board of Leidos, a defense contractor that profits off of war

UC Davis is no stranger to controversy. Under the leadership of Chancellor Linda Katehi, our university was accused of everything from denial of human rights and free speech to attempting to cover up the resulting press fallout. Katehi also saw immense criticism for her involvement with outside boards from which she reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars — all of which likely played a role in her decision to resign.

It’s worrying, then, that despite protests against Katehi’s membership on the boards of educational institutions and textbook publishers, our current chancellor’s membership on the board of the defense contractor Leidos Inc. has largely flown under the radar.

In 2015, Chancellor Gary May received $288,280 for serving on the Leidos board, more than Katehi received for her involvement from two of her three most prominent board positions at DeVry University and textbook publisher Wiley.

In an interview with the Editorial Board of The Aggie late last year, May responded to a question about his board membership by stating that “board service is an indicator of thought leadership,” and comparing himself to a colleague who sits on the Intel board yet teaches at UC Berkeley. In that same interview, when asked about whether or not Leidos profits off of war, he stated that “the company does not necessarily benefit from war,” and called the assertion that it does “crazy.”

Unfortunately, by comparing himself to someone who sits on the board of Intel and insisting that the company’s defense work isn’t war-related, he glosses over Leidos’ highly problematic activities.

Leidos, the ninth largest defense contracting corporation, holds contracts with Homeland Security, the NSA, Border Patrol, the Department of Defense and other national security and defense agencies. These contracts are less innocent than Chancellor May says. Among them is one with the Army Expeditionary War Development program. The program mostly consists of weapons and technology development to make invasions of foreign countries less challenging. For this, Leidos received a significant share of the nearly $1 billion earmarked for the project.

Leidos additionally led the development of the ACTUV, also called the “Sea Hunter,” an unmanned, nearly undetectable submarine designed to destroy enemy vessels. Similarly, it has developed systems for training Apache helicopter gunmen to shoot at targets, and systems to train and test soldiers for combat.

Leidos used to be known as Science Applications International Corporation, but in 2013 the company split in two. SAIC kept the original name, while its parent company became Leidos. Even though the original purpose of SAIC was to serve the government’s IT needs, it quickly reinvested itself into intelligence.

Now, both SAIC and Leidos are two of just five companies that hire almost 80 percent of private sector employees working on U.S. intelligence contracts, making them part of a quickly narrowing intelligence monopoly.

SAIC has an uncomfortably close relationship to the NSA; according to journalist and intelligence expert Tim Shorrock, “The agency is the company’s largest single customer and SAIC is the NSA’s largest contractor.” Prior to the company’s split, SAIC became famous for its involvement in a failed project to track the emails and calls of foreign nationals.

Leidos, too, isn’t innocent: John Hamre, a former corporate leader who held the same title and a similar salary as Chancellor May, co-penned a report in 2015 vehemently defending the NSA’s right to spy on American citizens to prevent national security and terrorist threats. In terms of surveillance development, much of Leidos’ work focuses on biometric technologies. Biometric technologies, including the ones Leidos is working on, are used for facial identification, fingerprint recognition, DNA identification and identification through scanning of the eye.

Backing these contracts is significant lobbying. Leidos has in the past been one of the NSA contractors serviced by law firm Steptoe & Johnson to lobby government agencies and politicians. It also runs its own political action committee, investing the billions it receives in intelligence and military contracts into mostly Republican candidates.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Leidos contributed about $331,000 to Republican candidates, including the campaigns of Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn. Leidos also contributed to the campaigns of a number of senators who supported President Donald Trump’s Muslim immigration ban, such as Roy Blunt, Lamar Alexander and Cindy Hyde-Smith. Seventy-three percent of the $274,000 they contributed to candidates in 2016 went to Republicans, and it was 74 percent in 2014.

The company also contributes to the campaigns of a large amount of Democratic candidates. Of the 241 Democratic and Republican members of Congress that voted to extend NSA spying and expand intelligence operations earlier this year, 94 received campaign contributions of at least a thousand dollars for their 2018 election campaigns.  

None of this even touches on the amount of research and development Leidos conducts into border surveillance systems, by its own account taking advantage of Trump’s immigration policies, or Roger Krone standing behind Donald Trump as he signed a tariff on Chinese goods — a strategy criticized for bringing far more harm to the American economy than good.

This is the company that Chancellor May sits on the board of. May says he is “disappointed to receive this kind of stigma,” and that he hopes to turn it around. He waved off involvement in one of the largest military contractors in the U.S., a company that has a hand in everything from development of military technology to domestic espionage. His assertion that Leidos does not profit off of war is directly contradicted by ample evidence that Leidos develops weapons, military vehicles and systems to train soldiers to attack and kill our “enemies” more efficiently. Or the fact that Leidos made almost $1.9 billion in 2016 servicing military IT technologies, many of which have been used in overseas deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two years ago, UC Davis divested from companies using prison labor due the industry’s problematic and racist nature. May should follow this example and divest himself from the problematic and racist war industry. He may not believe that his position is unethical, but it’s time he reconsidered his moral standings.

The writer is a second-year international relations and Middle East/South Asia Studies double major at UC Davis.

Written by: Jesse Kireyev

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

To submit a letter to the editor, please email opinion@theaggie.org.


  1. Thanks for writing this piece and gathering this excellent information and analysis. I really don’t understand how a Chancellor of a university with a stated mission to address ‘problems related to food, health, the environment and society’ can spend his time supporting a company that makes many of these problems worse. It’s a huge conflict of interest and it’s time for May to show some leadership by ending this relationship.


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