Taking Charge

New UC Davis Chancellor Dr. Gary May on innovation, strategic planning and student outreach

Back Q&A Sep 27, 2017 By Rich Ehisen

New UC Davis Chancellor Dr. Gary May arrived at the university with a stellar reputation for innovation, leadership and academic equality for all students. We sat down with him recently to discuss his plans and goals for one of the region’s landmark institutions.

One item at the top of your agenda is developing a high-tech innovation hub similar to the ‘Technology Square’ facility you developed in Atlanta. What would something like that look like here?

It’s not clear yet what it would look like, but I think the elements that are important are that it’s a world-class university in a world-class city with an engaged business community that’s interested in participating. We have talked about it like Technology Square, but I don’t want to give the impression that we’ve already decided on what we want the portfolio of activities to be. Certainly engineering and technology will play an essential role, but there’s room for any discipline that engages in innovation: innovation in business, innovation in policy, innovation even in the arts. It would be a mistake for me to prescribe what should be there without hearing from the folks who will actually be doing the work. It’s going to evolve organically, not from me taking a top-down posture and saying we’re going to put a technology innovation center here.

What are some other action items on your immediate agenda?

We would like to be among that small handful of universities at the tip of your tongue when you talk about the nation’s top research universities. I don’t think we have very far to go because the excellence is already here.

We will be developing a strategic plan for the university. Across the campus there are many plans for various units and activities. I would like to align those plans and knit them together into a common vision and mission, and set up maybe 3-5 broad objectives for the campus that will lead us over the next 5-10 years.

Where do you see the institution going in the next decade?

You always get in trouble when you predict the future because usually you’re wrong. But I will say that we would like to be among that small handful of universities at the tip of your tongue when you talk about the nation’s top research universities. I don’t think we have very far to go because the excellence is already here. What we have not been able to do is to tell that story as effectively as we might. I think if we do all the right things with a strategic plan and the potential interaction with Sacramento, it will be much easier for us to tell that story, and it will be a more compelling story.

You’ve said you want to move the university past the controversial tenure of your predecessor, Linda Katehi, who had a very difficult relationship with the student body here. How do you plan to build your relationship with students and faculty?

A lot of it is being accessible, responsive and open. I’ve had numerous meetings with various constituencies in this office, around campus and in the chancellor’s residence, particularly with the students. I have student liaisons to the rest of the campus that officially are my eyes and ears, that will share with me the student needs and desires and issues. I’m on a listening tour now that consists of regular meetings with various academic units.  

Does it make it more difficult for you knowing that Ms. Katehi will still be on the faculty?   

No, not at all. I’ve known Linda professionally for many years prior to her experience here as chancellor. Any time any university can have a scholar of her stature on their faculty it is an asset. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, she has 19 patents to her credit and hundreds of technical publications. Certainly, I’m sure the electrical and computer engineering department will consider her an asset to the faculty.

My wife is an engineer. What about outreach to women and girls to get more of them into STEM programs?

My wife is also an engineer. She’ll be a good partner for me in this activity because she plans to get engaged with women in STEM on campus as a role model, speaker and facilitator. Just as with underrepresented students, for women the keys are awareness and opportunity. You want to make women aware of the opportunities available at UC Davis. You want to have good role models, not just students but role models on the faculty [and] in the institution’s leadership — which we actually do have already — and we want to continue to make this environment welcoming and supporting to women and underrepresented students.

You seem to take a very strong partnership approach with your wife, LeShelle. Will she have an official role with the school?

We do, but she won’t have any formal staff role at the university. She has her own career …  But she will be a real resource for UC Davis and for me. She also plans to get involved in sexual assault awareness, with support for victims and in being involved in proactive measures we might take to prevent people from becoming victims of sexual assault. She is also interested in getting involved with UC Davis Health in a variety of ways. We are a partnership and we’ve been good partners for 23 years now, and I expect that that will continue.

How do you intend to emphasize outreach to students of color?

I’ve had sort of a parallel career in terms of my own activities focused on broadening participation among underrepresented students in STEM fields. I’ve had a whole sweep of activities from kindergarten through Ph.D. and beyond along the educational pathway. That includes tutoring activities, mentoring programs, summer bridge programs and career development programs. There are many ways we can enhance the experience of those students and … make them feel like UC Davis is a welcoming environment concerned about their success.

Like many chancellors, you sit on corporate boards. This was something for which your predecessor drew criticism. You’ve said you intend to keep your board seats. Why is it important for someone in your position to have a spot on these boards?

Well, not just the chancellor. I think any leader at UC Davis who has an opportunity to expand our network and our voice and our reach should take advantage of outside professional activities to the extent they can. I think that is indicative of our thought leadership. It’s a flattering thing for a company or a nonprofit to say, ‘We would like to hear your voice and your expertise to help guide our decision-making.’ In the case of my previous institution, the fact I was on a particular board led to tens of millions of dollars of philanthropy. I’m not suggesting or guaranteeing that will happen at UC Davis, but I think having access to CEOs and to my fellow board members and being able to tell them about the things that are happening here and to perhaps interest them in being partners with us can have positive benefits for our university.

There is growing concern that artificial intelligence and automation are going to have a major negative impact on the U.S. workforce. What more would you like to see universities do to work with industry to help better prepare the workforce of the future?

It’s incumbent of the universities to inculcate in our students an appreciation for lifelong learning. They have to have the willingness to come back and reinvent themselves and learn more and more. At the same time, I think we have a responsibility to properly educate people that may be naysayers about technology. There’s a lot of unfounded fears about artificial intelligence in particular, and we need to make sure people understand what’s possible and what’s not possible. We also need to be educating students to do the sorts of jobs that robots and AI can’t do, jobs that require an innate creativity. We need to cultivate that and have our curricula include that [so] our students can still add value to corporations that will be automating. 

Hey, UC Davis alum, what are your thoughts on new Chancellor Dr. Gary May? TWEET US @COMSTOCKSMAG.