May speaks about leadership in 2020 and the importance of diversity in higher education
As a year marked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and a historic election, 2020 has called for a greater recognition of leadership within the Black community, which has been disproportionately affected by these events.
Within our UC Davis community, Chancellor Gary May has been recognized as part of Cell Mentor’s “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America.” When UC Davis decided to transition to remote instruction in March, he began his weekly “Checking in With Chancellor May” emails to the community, used his “Thursday Thoughts” Instagram stories to bring awareness to issues facing Davis students and made swift statements regarding the social justice movements taking place.
Tatiana Perkins, a fourth-year political science and African American and African studies double major, stated that May’s presence in the community made her and fellow Black students feel supported throughout the challenging year.
“I personally have never had a visible figure in a staff position in school, in K through 12 or at community college; I have never seen a Black person that high up,” Perkins said. “After the murder of Ahmaud Arbery last February, Chancellor May and his wife immediately made a statement […] and with the Black Lives Matter protests he was always saying something, so I felt that […] Black students felt represented and supported by them. It definitely made being at Davis feel more comfortable.”
Although he is now a prominent figure at UC Davis, May did not always intend to become a university chancellor. After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1985 with a B.E.E in engineering and earning an M.S. and PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley, he returned to Georgia Tech as executive assistant to the then-Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough, where he built a strong foundation in leadership, inspired by his years at Berkeley.
“Those years were also a time when I got deeper into advocating for graduate students,” May said via email. “I helped form the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students not long after I entered UC Berkeley. During that time, I also served as [the] national chairperson for the National Society of Black Engineers.”
Upon his return to Georgia Tech in 1991, where he would eventually become the Dean of the College of Engineering in 2011, May’s interest in advocating for graduate students and leadership was guided by one of his mentors, Wayne Clough.
“I started my career in administration as executive assistant to then Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough,” May said via email. “He was one of my mentors and encouraged me to learn about and pursue broader leadership opportunities. He taught me about statesmanship and effective leadership.”
During his time at Georgia Tech, May said that he focused his leadership on improving diversity and access to higher education by helping the university create two programs that aimed to increase the number of underrepresented students in their graduate school. He created the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science program (SURE), which allows minority students to conduct research at Georgia Tech during the summer. According to SURE’s website, 75% of students in the program choose to attend a graduate school after completion. May also helped create Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science (FACES), which allowed 433 minority students to get PhDs at Georgia Tech.
In 2017, May became the first African American chancellor of UC Davis and only the second ever at a UC school. May explained that being the first African American chancellor has been challenging, including the need to set boundaries with whom he represents and what he chooses to speak out about.
“I’ve had quite a few requests over the past year to speak about diversity and inclusion to campus groups, external partners and businesses,” May said via email. “People are seeking to understand the issues and find solutions. However, I often remind people that I am the chancellor of UC Davis, not the chancellor of “BIPOC” [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] UC Davis. It is a balancing act.”
In addition to these pre-existing challenges, 2020 has called on leaders at many levels to take stances on issues that were sometimes previously overlooked, such as politics.
“In times of uncertainty, especially, people look to leadership,” May said via email. “The COVID-19 pandemic—and the civil unrest we’ve seen following the murder of George Floyd—impact our most vulnerable students. These events exacerbate the issues facing underrepresented students due to lack of resources, support and additional responsibilities placed on them in settings away from campus. I want them to know [that] their UC Davis community stands with them.”
May said via email that he is flattered to be included in the list of inspiring Black scientists, especially among colleagues Renetta Garrison Tull, the vice chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Devin Horton, the graduate diversity officer for STEM disciplines and a number of faculty from the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences.
“It’s an honor to receive recognition like this and to see so many of our UC Davis colleagues on the list as well,” May said via email. “A lack of diversity in STEM has been an intractable problem for many years. I’ve spent much of my career working to change that, because diversity helps drive innovation and technological advancement.”
He shared that in 2020, he’s learned that higher education can help be the solution for many problems we are facing today.
“We’re preparing the next generation to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges—whether that’s climate change, the next pandemic or social justice,” May said via email. “We need to help them understand these challenges and inequalities so they can become change makers.”
Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — firstname.lastname@example.org