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Diversity, Not Drama: Q&A With UC Davis’s Chancellor Gary May

September 24, 2018
by Glen Martin

Gary S. May became the seventh chancellor of University of California, Davis last year—and the first African-American chancellor in the school’s history. May, who received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley in 1991, had served as the dean of the College of Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology prior to coming to UC Davis.

His assumption of the office followed a stormy tenure by his predecessor, Linda Katehi, who resigned from her post in 2016 amid charges of nepotism, conflict of interest, and intense criticism surrounding the pepper-spraying of student protestors by campus police.

Photo by Karin Higgins

Those tensions had not completely abated by the time May arrived in August 2017, in part because Katehi was retained as a professor. And while the new chancellor was generally welcomed by both faculty and students, who were heartened by his commitment to greater campus diversity and deeper economic engagement with local communities, some took exception to his board involvement with defense contractors. May counters that he was candid about his board membership with the university’s search committee, and that his participation provides essential avenues for fundraising.

Funding will no doubt be important as May has vowed to generate some overdue respect for the school. Though Davis is among the most academically comprehensive of the University of California campuses, offering 102 undergraduate majors, supporting four colleges and six professional schools, and attracting nearly $800 million in research funding annually, it is overshadowed—unfairly, Aggies naturally feel—by the system’s flagship campus, UC Berkeley.

CALIFORNIA interviewed May at his offices on a recent sweltering Sacramento Valley afternoon. Though he seems the quintessential engineer—calm, cool, reflective, soft-spoken, linear in his thinking—a dry, incisive humor seems to inform his worldview. He appears determined to get things done, with minimum drama.

CALIFORNIA: Your mother was among the first group of African-Americans to integrate the University of Missouri in the 1950s. We’ve clearly made progress in higher education since then, but black enrollment in the UC system is down, and at UC Davis African-Americans are just 4 percent of the undergraduate population; retention and graduation remain a challenge. So what’s your sense? Are we still making progress?

Gary May: We do have some indications we are making progress, [especially] in regard to Chicano/Latino populations. UC Davis will be a Hispanic-serving institution before long. That’s a big deal. [For that designation,] 25 percent of your domestic undergraduate enrollment has to be of Hispanic background, and then you become eligible for some federal funds. We’re over 25 percent, but to get the official designation you have to maintain that for a year. We passed [that threshold] this spring and applied for eligibility in March. By next March if we’re still there—and we have every confidence we will be, given our freshman class—we’ll be able to get the designation.

CM: I assume African-American undergraduate enrollment has been more challenging.

GM: It is. We’re at about 4 percent, and we’re going to be doing all we can to increase that. I was told by our admissions folks that the next freshman class has about 250 African-American students. We just graduated about 120 [in June], that’s double, assuming they all stay and are successful. We’ve been doing pretty aggressive recruiting and identifying financial aid and scholarships and [providing] mentoring. We have centers around campus for all the subpopulation groups, which are basically support mechanisms for those students. They get some academic enrichment there, but these are also places where they can find social support. That [social support] was a huge issue for me when I was an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, where we had an office of minority educational development. There was academic tutoring, but it was also a physical location and community where [minority] students could find support and be comfortable.

CM: How does UC Davis support and augment these centers?

GM: We staff them and fund programs and various activities. The primary function is academic, but the social support [is critical to keeping] these students retained and successful through graduation—and afterwards, from contacts with alumni. It can be tough for minority students coming into a university environment. That first experience … can be a jarring one. They come from communities where everyone looks like them to one where few people do. And the same can be true for white students attending a university where they’re in the minority. It’s a human condition, not one restricted to particular races.

CM: Any other thoughts on achieving greater diversity?

GM: I think it’s important to understand that we don’t want greater diversity out of charity or [just because] it’s the right thing to do—though I think it is. I strongly believe diversity yields better outcomes. There are many examples of that—including STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] fields. The first voice-activated devices didn’t respond to women’s voices. The first air bags almost killed women passengers because they were tested on crash test dummies with taller male anatomies. Even today if you go to some restrooms with automated faucets or soap dispensers, [people of color have to insert their hands with the palms upward], because the sensors are not properly calibrated for skin tone. Even more recently, face recognition programs have trouble with darker complexions. So I may want my iPhone 10 to recognize me, but I’m not completely confident it will. [The technology] tends to be more accurate and precise for lighter skin. One of my former students wrote about this. If those design teams were diverse, you wouldn’t have had these problems.

CM: What was your particular field in engineering?

GM: Electrical engineering. I was involved in semiconductor manufacturing. The goal was to more efficiently produce integrated circuits, so it involved modeling, process control, and developing sensors for monitoring the processes that are used to manufacture the chips.

CM: Do you miss doing research now that you’re an administrator?

GM: Yeah. I have one Ph.D. student left [laughs], whom I jointly advise with my colleague at Georgia Tech. And yes, I do miss the research to some degree. I miss teaching as well. But there are different ways to fulfill your passions, and I enjoy leadership as well.

CM: When you first came here, you met with the mayor of Sacramento and some other local leaders. There was some talk about building a technology center in the city. Has there been any progress on that?

GM: Quite a bit of progress. We’ve identified a location, a 25-acre plot of land near the UC Davis health campus in Sacramento. The name of the project is Aggie Square, which we announced formally in April. It’ll have a combination of things. We’ll be teaching classes and offering degrees, we’ll [have] research centers, there’ll be incubators and start-up facilities, landing places for big companies to partner with us, and on the periphery there will be housing, retail, amenities like restaurants, making it an innovation ecosystem.

CM: It seems inevitable that some pressure has to be taken off Silicon Valley, given that it has become largely unaffordable for average people.

GM: We’ve heard that a lot. The cost of living there, the saturation of the number of companies and activities there—there’s a need to find a place that’s basically a relief valve, if you will. Costs are more reasonable here, the terrain is more open, there’s more available [property], so we think the Sacramento region is ripe for this sort of activity.

CM: You have a full plate here—bringing more jobs and research into the area, improving campus diversity. But what are some of your other goals?

GM: Longer term, UC Davis is kind of viewed as a sleeping giant. We’d like to change that. We’d want to make Davis more of a place that’s on the tip of the tongue. […] It’s not like that’s a heavy lift. We’re already number one or two in the world in at least two major areas—agriculture and veterinary medicine. Not many universities can say they’re number one in the world in multiple areas. There’s some foundation to build on there. We represent all the professions—engineering, law, medicine. We’re the most comprehensive university in the UC system.

CM: How did that [sleeping giant status] happen? Berkeley has always been the flagship campus in the UC system. Irvine, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles all are prominent schools. How did Davis evolve, albeit under the radar, into this academic and research powerhouse?

GM: If I had to guess, being near the capital had a lot to do with it. And the importance of agriculture to the state certainly had something to do with it. And for many years, we’ve been the number one university in the UC system in enrolling and graduating California residents. We have 250,000 living UC Davis alumni.

CM: I know this can’t be your favorite subject, but your predecessor was controversial and obviously, you still have to deal with that history on occasion. Can you talk to us about that and how the adjustment has been?

GM: My answer from the beginning has been we’re going to look forward, not back. I understand that there were some issues, but we need to put those behind us because we’re not going to change what’s already happened. I’ve done a lot to try to address what I perceive as a trust deficit on campus about leadership. We want students, faculty, staff, and everyone to feel that the administration is a partner and not a competitor—or even sometimes worse. That’s the posture I take, and one we’ll continue to emphasize.

CM: Do you still get heat or blowback [about controversies involving Chancellor Katehi]?

GM: Every now and then, but it has diminished significantly over the year I’ve been here. I think there was some pent-up desire here for fresh leadership. I don’t think people wanted to dwell on [the past]. I think people wanted to have a more positive outlook, and I’ve been trying to give it to them.

CM: You took your Ph.D. from Cal, but your undergraduate years were spent in Georgia, and you were a professor and administrator at Georgia Tech. How was that transition from Georgia to Davis? Was it dramatic in any way?

GM: Not as much as you would think. They’re both public universities that are strong in engineering, and engineers are pretty much the same everywhere. That transition was not as challenging as this more recent one. Because now, coming from a place where I spent 26 years of my career, at a university that was very focused on STEM fields—now, UC Davis is still very strong on STEM, but it’s comprehensive as well. We offer 102 undergraduate degrees. So it’s a much broader academic environment than I was used to, and I’m still learning the ropes.

CM: Yeah. It’s terrible having to deal with liberal arts people.

GM: [Laughs] Don’t write that, but there’s some truth to that. It’s just different, a different outlook. I’m pretty linear, pretty cause and effect. I don’t want to just talk about problems, I want to solve problems. And sometimes, that can be a challenge. But overall, I think I’ve been well-received, and I’m happy with the decision to come. UC Davis is different from Georgia Tech, and the city of Davis is different from Atlanta. So I’m making both of those adjustments. Davis is a college town, and it has its charms. I don’t miss Atlanta’s traffic. And if you like city living, you can get to San Francisco or Sacramento, you can easily have those experiences.

CM: Do you miss urban life?

GM: From time to time. But like I said, if I want to go to a concert, I can go to a concert. But I also have the added advantage of being able to go to Napa or Tahoe.

CM: Regarding another issue, there were some student protests about your board service [for defense contractors]. Was that unexpected?

GM: Yes and no. I knew that part of the issues surrounding Linda [Katehi] was participation [with defense contractors], but I was very open, honest, and transparent about [board membership] from the earliest interviews I had with the search committee. I said, “I do this, and is this going to be an issue?” As I’ve said to people, I think board service is an indicator of thought leadership, and that’s a very positive thing for a university leader, or for anyone, for that matter. And it had benefits for my previous university, and I think it will have benefits here. As you become a more mature and experienced leader, you have expertise and attributes that companies find valuable. Being in those networks allows you to meet other people who are very experienced and accomplished, and to take advantage of [fundraising opportunities]. My participation on boards at Georgia Tech led to tens of millions of dollars in fundraising. The last [bequest] that I was responsible for was a $15 million gift that went for undergraduate scholarships, and it was a direct result of my participation on a board.

CM: Your salary is public; it’s close to $500,000 a year. And your contracting [and board] work provides about $300,000 annually. That’s in line with people of your experience and accomplishments. Nevertheless, you can go down to Berkeley—and perhaps it’s the same story here to some degree—and you’ll find students living out of their cars. The disparity between the wealthy and the middle class is widening. Regardless of race, it seems like there’s less and less opportunity for [average] people to access public universities. The top people at the public universities earn a lot of money [because] you have to pay top dollar to get quality [faculty and administrators]. But how do we address these disparities of so much money available for the people at the top and so little for the people who actually attend these schools?

GM: That’s a lot to unpack. First, let’s say I was one of those poor struggling students at one point in my life, and I fully get that experience. The goal of higher education is to give students the opportunity to have higher mobility and become successful.

Now, there’s a bigger societal issue about the decline of the middle class, and I don’t know that I or UC Davis can solve that. I personally believe that wealthier people should pay more taxes, but that’s a side issue from my role here.

I think it is a bit of a red herring when we talk about how much [UC] administrators make. [If you take] all the so-called senior management group [in the UC system], you accumulate all those salaries, it’s about a quarter of one percent of the whole UC budget. So if you paid all those people zero, we’d still have problems. You could still argue we’re overpaid, but the Association of American Universities, which [consists of the top 62 research] universities in the country, [notes] that the chancellors at UC are, salary-wise, in the bottom 25th percentile. Right or wrong, you can still say that’s too much … but if you want to talk about pay relative to market, we’re at the bottom of the market. Of course, I don’t want this to come across that I’m complaining, or that I’m asking for more. But people should just have some perspective on this.

On tuition, we’d like to see it stay reasonable, and we’d like to have the state be a bigger contributor. I paid out-of-state tuition at Georgia Tech. I did that by working as a co-op student, as a tutor and an RA.

CM: I haven’t calculated the degree at which [UC] tuition is outstripping inflation, but if California were a country, it’d have the fifth largest economy in the world. It seems like we should be able to fund [higher public education].

GM: I think so. [Part of the problem] is declining contributions from the state. Costs have not gone up much faster than inflation, but when state contributions decline, [the shortfall] is made up with tuition. The other thing that has happened is that students have higher expectations for their experience. They want a certain quality in housing, food, mental health services, all these other services. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have them, but you don’t do them for free. So all these factors contribute.

CM: Rumor has it you’re a Star Trek fan.

GM: I am, and have been ever since I was a kid. I watched the original series growing up, and that remains my favorite.

CM: The original series?

GM: Yes.

CM: Because there’s no acceptable substitute for Spock, I assume.

GM: [In a monotone deadpan] Spock is the greatest fictional character ever created.

CM: Was he in some way a role model for you?

GM: Yes, in some ways. I think I’m logical. … He’s on this ship with all these humans, that are different from him. I felt a little of that growing up. A stranger in a strange land kind of feeling.

CM: Ever feel that way still?

GM: Yeah. I mean, talking about the AAU again, there are three African-American presidents or chancellors.

CM: Do you guys ever talk about that?

GM: [Laughs] It comes up. But in my last three jobs, I’ve been the first black department chair, the first black dean of engineering, and the first black chancellor. So it’s not an unfamiliar [feeling]. 

Glen Martin is a frequent contributor to California and California Online.

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