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New Chancellor ‘Boldly’ Takes Charge

By Dave Jones on August 8, 2017 in University News

Yes, we have a new chancellor!

He’s in the papers and on TV and radio. He’s on social media. He’s meeting business leaders, city leaders and legislators.

Most important, Gary S. May is here, officially, on the Davis and Sacramento campuses, as our university’s seventh chancellor and first leader in 15 months who doesn’t have “acting” or “interim” in front of his title. And that had people excited, evidenced in part by 19 retweets of Dateline’s July 25 article on May’s arrival one week hence.

“I think there’s some pent-up anticipation as a result of the transition … moving on from the previous administration to the new future,” May said in an interview with Dateline UC Davis his first day on the job, Aug. 1. He emphasized he is looking forward, not back.

Secondly, he said, “I think that there is certainly excitement in the minority community about having an African American chancellor” — the first in UC Davis history. He found himself taking office the day media reports surfaced of the Justice Department’s plan to investigate universities for admissions practices that allegedly discriminate against whites.

In an official statement Aug. 2, he commented: “It would … be deeply troubling if the administration’s actions deepened divisions and exacerbated racial tensions. Higher education has served as a key vehicle to providing upward mobility for all as well as an opportunity for us to learn both about and from our differences and our history. It would be a major step backwards if those opportunities were diminished.”

He commented further the next day in an interview with The Davis Enterprise: “That’s something that makes me very irritated. It’s a clearly misguided initiative. It’s ridiculous to put forward the argument that white students are discriminated against, when by every measurement and every study, that’s just not the case.”

On a trajectory to Mount Everest

Chancellor May and his wife, LeShelle, met hundreds of faculty, staff and students on Day 1, during two meet-and-greets — a light breakfast at UC Davis Health and an ice cream social in the afternoon on the Davis campus, outside, in 100-degree weather.

Gary May greets staff and faculty at an ice cream social.
Chancellor May at ice cream social on the Mrak Mall, Aug. 1: Shaking hands, posing for selfies — and he even had time for ice cream. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

“President Napolitano called for a UC Davis chancellor who could take the heat,” May told a crowd of several hundred people on the Mrak Mall. “I guess I had a different understanding of what exactly that meant.”

In his prepared remarks, the former dean of engineering at Georgia Tech said: “I am truly excited about leading UC Davis to new heights. Your university — and, now, I am proud to say, ‘our university’ — is already a Mount Whitney. ‘We’ — I’m happy I can say that now, too — we are already on a trajectory to a Mount Everest.”

Dateline asked Chancellor May to elaborate on his goal of seeing “UC Davis” become a household name across the country. “If you’re not in higher ed and you’re from east of the Rockies, you probably have not heard much about UC Davis,” he said. UC Davis is certainly well known in academia, he added, but there’s room to improve, particularly in the East, say, when parents sit down with their teenagers to discuss college options.

“UC Davis should come up in the conversation,” he said. “I think it happens with some of our UC sister schools — UCLA and Berkeley. And there’s no reason why UC Davis couldn’t be part of the same conversation.”

How do we get there? “First, you have to be excellent at many things, and I think we are. … We need to get that story out there to a broader audience, and we need to be even more innovative, like partnering with Sacramento and the business community in developing an innovation ecosystem. Athletics are important, too, because sometimes a layman’s first introduction to any university is watching their team on television.”

“And, finally, just recruiting the very best people of all sorts, including the best faculty, certainly the top students in the state of California … and having those people excel at what they do.”

Gary May poses for a selfie with the Mandela Fellows.
Chancellor May poses for a selfie with this year's class of Mandela Fellows, July 28.

Listening and connecting

In his welcome message to the campus Aug. 1, Chancellor May said he would begin work immediately on a strategic plan for the university. (The self-described “Trekkie” has given the plan a tentative title of “To Boldly Go,” a reference from the Star Trek television and movie series.)

“Successful plans require buy-in or consensus from those who have a stake in its outcome,” May said in his remarks at the ice cream social. “The stakeholders are all of you — students, faculty, staff and alumni. I want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to provide ideas.”

Gary May and Doris Matsui
Chancellor May meets Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento, at Aug. 3 luncheon in Sacramento. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis photo)

He also talked about his “listening tour,” which is well underway. “Believe me, my calendar through December is filling up quickly, as it should be.”

Chancellor May is doing more than listening. He’s “connecting” with people on social media, and by that we mean interacting with people — people like Sarah Lloyd ’16, who tweeted to the new arrival: “OMG what dorm did you get put in!?!” He responded: “I got something called the Residence. What did you get?”

The "Residence" is the Chancellor’s Residence, of course. It’s just across the street from campus, allowing him to walk to and from Mrak Hall — and meet people along the way.  You can also see him at the Activities and Recreation Center, lifting weights. LeShelle May is a new ARC member, too; she has been taking spin classes.

LeShelle May worked as a computer engineer for CNN in Atlanta for 21 years, and she told Dateline that she is still on the job, now working remotely. She also spoke of her UC Davis projects, starting with sexual violence and harassment, working to prevent it and assisting its victims.

“Of course, men can be violated, but it’s mostly women who are violated, and, so, I want to start hearing their stories, and ask if there’s any way that I could help mitigate some of the numbers — they seem to be high everywhere.”

“Also, I plan to just participate in a lot of STEM activity, because I’m very involved in women in science, so I’ve been asked to speak on a few panels and people are reaching out to me.”

A third component will be working to get more Davis campus students involved with the medical center, say, as participants in the neonatal intensive care unit’s Cuddle Buddy program.

Gary May is interviewed.
Chancellor May addresses news conference, Aug. 1, at the Welcome Center. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

What others are saying

  • The Davis Enterprise, Aug. 6 editorial, “There’s A New Chancellor in Town” “May’s arrival offers a chance of a reset. Meeting with The Enterprise on Wednesday, he emphasized that the city and the campus ‘have to be good partners and good neighbors to each other.’ He’s already getting to meet his neighbors, reporting that he and his wife, LeShelle, have been enjoying walking into downtown Davis for dining and shopping.”
  • Bob Dunning, Enterprise columnist, Aug. 6: “Humble, but firm. A man with strong convictions who still has the ability to listen to others. On a personal level, people are going to like him. … That May is qualified for the job is unquestioned. He could have happily and comfortably remained at Georgia Tech, where he is highly revered and nothing short of a living legend. That makes me think that he plans to lead, not merely preside. And it also makes me think he will not hunker down at the Top of the Mrak when the inevitable campus crisis lands on his doorstep.”
  • The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 3 editorial about the city of Sacramento’s $44 million windfall from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement, and how Mayor Darrell Steinberg proposes to leverage “some of the money to attract private investment and to make Sacramento an advanced vehicle technology hub” — “Refreshingly, Steinberg’s ambition and sophistication are matched by new UC Davis Chancellor Gary May. While he and Steinberg haven’t talked specifically about the VW money, May says he wants the university to be more engaged in Sacramento as an economic partner. He wants to pursue a ‘transformative’ innovation hub, perhaps similar to Technology Square, developed to boost a poor area of Atlanta by the city, corporations and Georgia Tech, where May was dean of engineering. Steinberg went to Atlanta earlier this year to meet May and tour Technology Square. ‘The mayor and I are on the same page,’ May told The Bee’s editorial board.”

Follow Dateline UC Davis on Twitter.