Gary May, UC Davis’ new chancellor, has said he’s the university’s head cheerleader and friend-raiser. Most important, he will set the pace for moving the institution forward.
His focus on the future, May said, means forging past a turbulent chapter that saw the resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi. May, a 53-year-old engineer, moved into the Chancellor’s Residence with his wife, LeShelle, at the end of July, vowing to be a visible presence on campus. (The couple has two daughters, Simone, 22, a senior at Purdue University, and Jordan, 20, who attends Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.)
May’s first step has been to embark on a “listening tour” to meet with campus and community members, beginning on his first day at work, Aug. 1. It’s part of the process to develop a strategic plan by 2018, an effort he’s calling “To Boldly Go” (an homage to his beloved “Star Trek”). The plan will lay out a blueprint for the university’s next 10 years.
“The end goal is raising the profile of UC Davis and making us one of the handful of universities that’s on the tip of the tongue when you talk about the nation’s great public research universities,” May said. “That doesn’t mean we are far from that now — I think we are pretty close — but a lot of it is raising awareness.”
May comes to UC Davis with ample experience. After earning his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, he enjoyed a nearly three-decade career at Georgia Tech, most recently serving as dean of the College of Engineering. It is the largest and most diverse among all engineering programs in the U.S.
“I always said that if I was going to leave Georgia Tech it would have to be either a great location or a quality institution, and I happened to get both.”
“We gave the most engineering degrees in the country, and we also gave the most degrees to women and minorities in the country,” said May. “We also were ranked No. 4 in the country [by U.S. News & World Report for Best Undergraduate Engineering Program]. I think I was proudest that I don’t think any other college of engineering in the country could make those claims [in terms of] quality, quantity and diversity.”
At May’s investiture, longtime mentor G. Wayne Clough, secretary emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and president emeritus of Georgia Tech, highlighted the accomplishments of his mentee. “Be assured he’s been involved in the nuts and bolts of what it takes to make a university work, the experience to help get things done,” Clough said.
The UC Davis faculty respect May’s decades of commitment to higher education, said Rachael Goodhue, professor of agricultural and resource economics and chair of the Academic Senate.
“As our campus grows, faculty want to ensure we maintain a high-quality educational and campus-life experience for our students,” she said. “Similarly, faculty want to continue efforts to diversify both our student body and the faculty we recruit.”
At Georgia Tech, May also helped create an innovation hub, called Technology Square, in Atlanta. The space has become a model for connecting the university with business communities, enabling startups and offering education opportunities. He’s exploring something similar in Sacramento.
“If you have three pillars — the world-class university, the world-class city that Sacramento envisions, and an engaged and enthusiastic business community — those three things allow you to have a transformative impact on the community,” May said.
An avid comic book collector (his collection numbers 13,000!), the new chancellor took some time to speak with UC Davis Magazine a month after taking the helm.
You had 11 going-away parties at Georgia Tech and beyond. How difficult was it to leave?
I’d been there my whole career, 26 years on the faculty and four years as an undergraduate, so of course I’d developed some really close friendships, and the hardest part about leaving was leaving those friends. I had a great experience there, very positive professional life, enjoyed the city. I had mixed feelings when I was leaving, but it was a tremendous opportunity here that I just couldn’t pass up, and so far, so good.
What was it about Davis that persuaded you to come here?
I have friends on the faculty here in engineering, so I knew about some of the good things happening there. And I visited the campus way back in my grad student days, so it wasn’t a complete mystery. I always said that if I was going to leave Georgia Tech it would have to be either a great location or a quality institution, and I happened to get both.
You’ve been on a “listening tour.” Where has it taken you?
I’m meeting all the Davis stakeholders and constituents to hear about what they think is important, what they are proud of and what they think we need to do better. That’s students, faculty and staff here on campus, but it’s also alumni, government leaders, media, and those who have an opinion or a stake in what we’re trying to do. It’s been a whirlwind.
What issues could take center stage on the strategic plan that you develop?
Housing is a big one. We’re engaged in the free-speech discussion with other universities in deciding where we should stand and what limitations exist, if any, on quality and level of discourse on campus. There are ongoing issues of affordability and access for our students. We want to be able to serve the greatest number of California students that we can, subject to maintaining quality and housing and other constraints. One of the things that attracted me to Davis was the reputation for social mobility and public service. I want to be able to expand on those areas and try to get even more inclusive.
How can the chancellor stay close to the student population?
We have had meetings with student leadership, and we’ll continue those regularly. But also I have a couple of student liaisons who are my eyes and ears, and I meet with them regularly. They help me connect with other students and tell me about issues that are popping up.
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Early on, you made a public statement in response to the summer protests in Charlottesville. What is the chancellor’s role in these discussions?
The chancellor must set the tone. I thought it was important to give our community some words to rally around and express what I was thinking and feeling. I wanted to set a stake in the ground as to where we stand on these issues. We believe very strongly in free speech. We don’t, however, support inciting or provoking violence. We certainly don’t promote intolerance and won’t stand for it.
You’re active on social media — why do you like that platform for interacting?
I got on Facebook initially because my daughters were teenagers, and I wanted to keep an eye on them — make sure they weren’t getting into any trouble or posting things that they shouldn’t be. As it evolved, I started making friends with people who were connected to Georgia Tech in some way. I recognized that it was a good platform to make people aware of the good things that were happening on campus and brag. As it turned out, the more I did that, the more people got interested. It even led to some pretty significant philanthropic gifts because it was a platform for people to learn about the institution. Also, I think it’s fun. I like to joke around and have fun with it. On my personal page, I’ll talk about my family. People feel like they have access to me that they would not necessarily have otherwise.
As a child, did you always know you would go to college?
My parents were very insistent that both my sister and I would get a good education and college was the goal, for sure. My mother was in the class of students that integrated the University of Missouri. And my father, although he didn’t go to college immediately, he eventually got his degree later in life, and both were very insistent on good grades and college. They made those opportunities available to us. They put us in good schools. Our lifestyle was pretty modest — my mother was a teacher and my father was a postal worker — we lived middle-class at best in St. Louis. But they put us in private school and spent a lot of their own resources to make sure we got the best possible education. So college was not an option; it was mandatory. It was going to happen. I’m grateful for their direction.
What does your mother think about your moving out to California?
She’s not excited about me being farther away from her, but she’s very proud. She’s followed all the news stories. She has friends who send her newspapers. My sister helps; she also lives in St. Louis.
What does your typical day look like?
There’s no such thing as a typical day. I usually walk to work from the residence. I often have a bunch of meetings on the calendar. There are trips to Sacramento, to the health system, as well as visits with government officials and media. There are ceremonial things and evening events. On top of that, there’s travel. I do try to have a little fun — the new comics come out every Wednesday, so I’ve been going to get them for three or four weeks now.