Before Gary S. May began his term as chancellor on Aug. 1, 2017, he knew about some of the points of pride at the University of California, Davis: world-leading programs in veterinary medicine and agriculture, cross-disciplinary research and more. But he was still surprised when he arrived.
“I learned that I did not know how good UC Davis was,” May said. “I had suspicions — that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to come here — but this university is even better than I suspected.”
In his first year on campus, UC Davis’ seventh chancellor has made major strides to shape the future of the university, taken a close look at issues facing students and been an outspoken voice for social justice. In his second year he faces the challenge of sharing UC Davis’ greatness with more people — something his signature initiative will help address.
Looking forward, few things will change UC Davis more than Aggie Square, a long-term plan to transform part of the UC Davis campus in Sacramento into a technology incubator with research and accelerator space, academic programs, housing, retail and more. The planned development, modeled after a similar initiative May helped lead at Georgia Tech, was born out of a partnership between the campus, the city of Sacramento, industry leaders and community groups.
It will highlight UC Davis innovation and the university’s connection to the region.
“I think that it’s important for public universities to present to their constituents and stakeholders some reasons to be proud of the educational, research and commercialization activities that take place and are enabled by the university,” May said. “So, Aggie Square will be our live-learn-work-play outlet for that.”
It isn’t the only way the chancellor has looked to the future.
After input in the form of written comments, town hall meetings and more, a draft of May’s strategic plan for the university, “To Boldly Go,” was released in June. It maps out how UC Davis will improve and grow in the next decade, and focuses on five areas: pedagogy, research, diversity, visibility and innovation. It will be finalized early this fall.
All the while, May has sought transparency, inviting the public — especially students — into his world. One of his first acts was to hold a contest asking students and alumni to redesign two rooms in the Chancellor’s Residence. Since then, he’s invited numerous groups to visit that home, launched a job shadowing program where students spend a day with various campus leaders, taken students to the movies, helped new students move their items into the residence halls and spent time at numerous community events with his wife, LeShelle.
“I think it’s important for people to know that they can access the leader and get responses, be heard and be able to be a part of the leadership journey,” May said.
May hasn’t been afraid to speak out on issues facing the campus and wider community, taking part in a community-wide rally denouncing white supremacists in Charlottesville just two weeks after taking office, and issuing statements promoting inclusion and condemning abusive behavior, gun violence and racism.
He has also engaged with students, faculty, staff and community members on social media, building a community of nearly 5,000 followers. In his first year, May sent more than 650 tweets, had Facebook posts seen nearly 900,000 times and posted more than 100 photos on Instagram.
May has also worked to improve the lives of UC Davis students, forming task forces on housing, food security and mental health. Reports from those groups will inform the chancellor’s actions over the coming year.
His first year on campus has also been a stimulating one, with the Chancellor’s Colloquium series hosting Alan Alda and the rapper GZA, two entertainers who champion scientists communicating effectively about their research to public audiences.
Everything May did in his first year contributed to growing the profile of UC Davis, but he isn’t trying to do it alone. He compared enlisting the help of students, faculty, staff and alumni in that awareness effort to waking a sleeping giant.
“When we get there, I think that people are going to be stunned by how much positive activity and momentum exists here because of UC Davis.”