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Meet Gary May, April 10 Excellence in Leadership speaker

Closeup of Gary May.
UC Davis Chancellor Gary May

By Aaron N. Oforlea, president, WSU Black Faculty and Staff Association, and associate professor, English

Chancellor of the University of California, Davis, Gary May is known as a dynamic leader who has championed diversity in both higher education and the workplace. On May 10 he will deliver this year’s Excellence in Leadership lecture. Aaron Orforlea, WSU associate profess or English, recently caught up with May to discuss his career and approach to leadership.

Edited for length. Read the full interview.

How did you get your start in higher education administration?

I was like many academics, teaching my courses, doing my research and minding my own business when several of my mentors suggested that I consider leadership roles. My first leadership role was associate chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. I sort of thought that would be a good way to get my feet wet and learn what administration was like. After a year of doing this I was tapped by the president of Georgia Tech, G. Wayne Clough. He asked me to be his executive assistant. That’s the role that he used as an apprenticeship for people he thought had high potential in academic leadership.

I became appreciative of all that goes into running a university. In addition to running my own classroom and lab, I learned how buildings get built, how to deal with athletics, how to deal with politicians and media, how to promote the university, how to raise money—all things that we don’t think about as professors.

Which skills do you draw on from your profession as an engineer and from your personal life in your position as chancellor?

In engineering, we are very quantitative people by nature and we like to measure things, and I am the same way in my position as chancellor where I am required to make decisions based on data. I am very analytical and systematic in the decision-making process. I am very objective, try to be level headed and not driven by emotions. I try to keep an even keel with my team and not get too high or low.

In terms of personal background, I try to be empathetic, be a good communicator, be transparent, be honest, as integrity is really important to me, be approachable, and open to differing opinions.

What’s the most challenging part of being chancellor?

You can’t please everyone so you have to figure out which decision is the least objectionable for the most people, with the knowledge that you still will have critics regardless of what you decide to do or how you decide to do it.

What is the significance of being involved with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)? Some people still question if we still need societies that are concerned with increasing diversity in academia.

Well, for me, I went to a university that was majority white—Georgia Tech. And, early as an undergraduate, I wanted to find people like me to share experiences with, to support and socialize with, and NSBE was a vehicle for that.

Not only were we commiserating on our exams and homework, but we also talked about career goals and networking with each other, and how we could help each other become successful. As I got more involved in NSBE, I became interested in leadership. It was important to me to give back. I know that sounds trite, but I felt like I achieved some level of success and wanted to show others how to do it; I want to be a role model and show other people how to be successful.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into academic administration?

First, I would say be patient. Find ways to have good experiences and enjoy each step on the ladder; find some mentors and role models you can bounce things off of. Mentorship was so important to me and is still important to me.

It’s going to take quite a bit of work and time, so you have to be willing to put the time in. Don’t try to skip steps; don’t be too ambitious too quickly—not everyone will be a dean or chancellor. Sometimes you have to find what you’re good at, and if it’s not the highest level that’s fine because we need good people at all levels. Just be intentional about the roles that you are seeking, make sure that it matches your skillset, temperament, personality and professional goals as opposed to just seeking a title.

The main purpose for bringing African Americans leaders here as part of the Excellence in Leadership lecture series is to deepen our ongoing discussions about the importance of diversity and leadership. Do you mind speaking about the significance of diversity and leadership?

We all know about Dubois and code switching. Early in my career, I did that a lot and would wonder if it was appropriate to behave in a certain way when I wasn’t around other African American people.

But the longer my career has gone, the more I have become comfortable in my own skin, and it has really made me more effective and relaxed. I’m not always thinking about is it okay to do this or that.

I remember having a discussion with someone about displaying particular types of art in my office. Early in my career I would’ve been hesitant to do so because I didn’t want to be seen as too black. But now I think, well, that’s who I am, and people are going to have to accept that.

It’s too hard to have to code switch and think about what’s authentic. So, I think being who I am may help some people as they consider what makes a successful leader.

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