Photo Credits: JUSTIN HAN / AGGIE. LeShelle May poses for a portrait at Mrak Hall. Nov. 8, 2019.
Distinguished software engineer and wife of UC Davis Chancellor shares her views on women in the workplace, protests on campus, Davis community
LeShelle May sits on the fifth floor of Mrak Hall — the same building that her husband, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May, has an office in. Yet she doesn’t appear concerned with this fact, and instead she greets the staff with a level of ease and warmth that shows her obvious comfort with being both on campus and in the office.
Despite being in between trips — she was in San Francisco the night before, and had plans to fly with the football team to Portland that night — May appeared unhurried as she spoke freely about her involvement on campus, her fruitful career, student protests and more. She carried only a bike helmet and water bottle, which she gestured to when explaining the different aspects of Davis that she found appealing.
“I love that it’s a walking [and biking] community,” May said. “To be honest, when we lived in Atlanta […] it wasn’t walkable. We had to drive to wherever, so what’s fun about Davis is that I walk everywhere, I cycle everywhere. I never have to fill up my tank.”
May and her husband moved from Atlanta, Ga. a little over two years ago when her husband was offered the chancellor position. She explained that she was initially doubtful about the town of Davis, especially given that she was relocating from such an urban environment — so the thing that surprised her most about the community was how much she liked it.
Though the pace of Davis may be regarded as a bit more lackadaisical in comparison to the bustle of Atlanta, May is anything but unoccupied. She has put her electrical engineering degree from Boston University to use at CNN for more than 20 years now, as both a senior software developer and manager. She played a crucial role in helping the company launch its website, CNN.com, and she has continued in her role, working remotely for the past two-and-a-half years since moving to Davis.
“It’s working out,” May said. “I have institutional knowledge that a lot of people don’t. The most challenging part is sharing that knowledge. Right now, it works out because I’m able to work for CNN from anywhere. So, when Gary and I are at a football game, I may work — my job is my laptop. That’s all that I need.”
While May’s title may officially be senior software manager, she has yet another pivotal, more informal role: she acts as the Chancellor’s second set of hands whenever she has a spare moment, filling in where he can’t, developing new relationships and maintaining already established ones. Given her calm and intelligent demeanor, it is unsurprising that she’s largely instrumental in helping fundraise for the university.
“The good part between Gary and I is that my presence on the campus is nice [to use] as a divide and conquer [strategy],” May said. “I don’t make decisions or anything, but I do try to be there for a lot of our donors that just want to have lunch or dinner. I see my role as to fill in where Gary can’t. He can’t be everywhere, all the time.”
She enjoys this unofficial role, viewing it as largely about “befriending” individuals, earning their trust and illustrating the vision of the school. Besides working with donors, May is a popular keynote speaker choice among many groups on campus — speaking at computer science seminars, at the graduate school of management and to Black Girls Rock that same morning — just to name a few.
The day before the interview took place, students swarmed Mrak Hall in protest over the implementation of UCPath, the UC’s new payroll system that caused many student workers to go weeks without pay. When asked her feelings about the UC Davis student body being notoriously activist, she replied, “the students have the right, and they should.”
May believes that the campus needs to be conscious of students’ issues, and if striking or protesting is the best medium to accomplish awareness, so be it. She does, however, caution students to be aware of legality and overuse. May said the only time she gets concerned when it comes to protests is when laws are broken that could potentially cause harm to others.
She compared protesting on the East Coast to its presence on the West Coast.
“On the West Coast, there’s a lot of protesting, and you can become jaded to it,” May said. “Have a vision, and let’s address your issues — seriously address the issues so that it’s not just a protest and you aren’t wasting your time. When you protest, you want people to say, ‘Wow, this is serious stuff.’”
In regards to areas of improvement for the university, May admitted that she worries about sexual harassment — an issue she acknowledged is widespread across college campuses. In her eyes, there is no “silver bullet” solution to this complicated issue, but she believes that education might be a good place to start.
Being the highly accomplished female professional that she is, May said she herself has faced numerous bouts of sexism in the workplace. She said she didn’t allow these incidents to impact her performance, saying most of these incidents “flew over [her] head.”
“Do you ever think straight when you’re angry?” May asked. “You really don’t, you lose vision. So I’ve never let those things lose my vision, because then I can be the better me. I’ve worked with men for a long time, but they always went to lunch every day and I was never invited. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to the gym.’ Eventually, you have to include me, because I’m the one [with knowledge]. I always say, ‘Be well studied,’ so that people will be forced to include you.”
When asked whether or not her husband’s status as somewhat of a public figure has ever impacted her personal or professional experiences, May quickly dismissed this notion. She made clear that her own pursuits were her primary concern.
“I’m not interested in academia,” May said with a chuckle. “I’ve talked to spouses of different presidents from the other schools, and they know everything because they just get involved more. My job is very mentally stimulating, it’s intense. I love that I have my own sense of me, and Gary has his own sense of him.”
It’s not that May is uninterested or even uninvolved with the university — it’s that her job is not simply that of the chancellor’s wife. While May works hard for UC Davis and lends a hand wherever one is needed, she is a career woman and is passionate about the work she does.
May and her husband keep their professional lives separate in many ways, but she did note how much she enjoys working with donors, as she’s able to relate to them on a certain level, given that they’re “more corporate than […] academia.”
And how does May want students to think of her? As a resource, she said.
“Use me as you want,” May said. “I would love to be a resource. If you want me to speak, if you want me to march, if you want me to talk, […] I see myself as more of a resource.”
Written by: Claire Dodd — firstname.lastname@example.org