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May reflects on career, leadership approach

By Aaron N. Oforlea
President, Black Faculty and Staff Association
Associate Professor, Department of English

Aaron Orforlea, WSU associate professor of English, talked to Gary May about his career and approach to leadership in advance of May’s April 10 visit to campus. May is chancellor of the University of California, Davis. The complete interview follows.


Aaron Oforlea: How did you get your start in higher education administration?

Gary May: 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. It was a part-time role.

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. The common name is chief of staff and that’s the role that he used as an apprenticeship for people he thought had high potential in academic leadership that he wanted to expose to the day-to-day life in the president’s office.

Several of us who had this role went on to have other roles in leadership, including president of Kennesaw State and dean positions around the country, so it was a really rich and fruitful experience for me. I did that for three years.

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 we 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.

It’s easy to complain that the people above you aren’t doing it right.  Years after, I became chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, so this was my first flying management role.  I did this for six years, then became a candidate for dean of the College of Electrical and Computer Engineering and did that for six years, which was the last job I had before coming chancellor of UC Davis.

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

May: 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.

A mistake that some leaders make is that they get too imperial. I try to stay relatable and not think that any job is too high or low for me. I stay humble.

Oforlea: What personal goals do you have for yourself? Do you see yourself running for public office in the near future?

May: No! That’s easy (laughing). Let me say it another way, I wouldn’t mind being a governor or an elected public official, but I would hate campaigning for office (laughing). So, I think the answer is no . . . but really in terms of what I would consider doing after chancellor, Iet’s see, I’m 54, so I think I have another one or two jobs in me before I retire.

But I really enjoy being on college campuses interacting with students, and you can’t beat the intellectual lifestyle and impact that you have in this type of role. You know someone asked me, would I ever want to be UC president like Janet Napolitano, and I said I don’t think so and not because I have any negative opinions about her or things that she is doing but because the job doesn’t really suit me or the things that I like to do.

So, I’m not sure what the next role will be, but it will definitely involve working closely with people on a college campus. There may be some things that I’m not thinking about that is appealing in being governor, but I don’t think being an elected official is the answer for me.

Oforlea: Do you see yourself leaving academia and going into industry?

May: Well, I worked in industry early in my career and completed several internships with companies like AT&T Bell Laboratories. Those experiences were a little sterile for me—not having enough interaction with other people.

In entry level engineering jobs, your responsibilities include taking measurements, making designs, interacting with five to ten other engineers in your group—which is fine for some people—but it just wasn’t fulfilling for me. If I went back to industry in some sort of leadership role, there might be something that I would like but I can’t think what that would be right now.

Oforlea: What’s the most challenging part of being chancellor?

May: 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.

Some people’s sole purpose in life is to criticize leadership. You have to learn to have thick skin about that, and I am still learning and I don’t think I’m there yet. When I was in lower-level leadership roles, there wasn’t as much of that as there is as chancellor. There is a poem called “Desiderata” about the experience of being in the fight versus being on the sideline.

Oforlea: When you reflect on your career is there anything that you would’ve done differently?

May: You know, I wish I would’ve learned a language. I say that all the time. I guess it’s not too late, but I don’t have fluency in a second language. That’s a gap that I should’ve corrected earlier.

Oforlea: Which language would you had studied?

May: Spanish would be the obvious one for this role.

Oforlea: Yes, I imagine it would be handy knowing Spanish in a state as diverse as California.

May: Yes, just to be able to think about things from a different cultural point of view I think having a second language would help you do that.

Oforlea: Would you take the same career path?

May: Actually, I’m pretty happy with how things worked out for me. The chief of staff role was very pivotal in my career. Mainly because I got to work for a really great mentor but also because I got the opportunity to learn the depth and breadth of what it’s like to run a university.

And, I do think those line management responsibilities were really important, so I don’t think anyone should jump from a role where they don’t have people reporting to them to a role where they do because many of the issues that administrators encounter are people and resource issues. These things you have to get some experience with before having a significant role like chancellor. So being a chair and a dean were really valuable for me.

Oforlea: Have you ever had any second thoughts about your chosen area of study?

May: I don’t think so. I think engineering has been great. I still have one Ph.D. student, and I still do some research. Have I ever thought about another career? Early in my career, I thought about architecture because I really like to draw but when I started having assignments I didn’t like it anymore.

Oforlea: Yeah, it’s always enjoyable doing something for fun but when you’re required to do it, it becomes less fun.

May: Yeah, for sure. If I could do something outside my career I’d be a talk show host. I would enjoy meeting interesting people, listening to them talk about lives, and their profession. It’s similar to what I do when fundraising, but it’s not before an audience.

Oforlea: Maybe an old school talk show host like Phil Donahue?

May: Yeah, Donahue had a great show.

Oforlea: Not Jerry Springer?

May: No, Jerry Springer wouldn’t be the goal.  I think the show is still on.

Oforlea: Yes, I think so . . . he’s still on TV.

May: But yes, Donahue is a great example.

Oforlea: Please talk a little about your involvement with communities outside of UC Davis and nationally. I know that you’re involved with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

May: Yes, I am in fact I am going to the convention on Friday.

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

May: 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 can 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.

So NSBE and other associations, consortiums, and various women and minorities-oriented roles of NSF provided this opportunity. I always think it’s important to give a pathway for other African American students who are interested in the STEMS fields. I like to tell them that they can do it, and give them some advice and tools to be successful and a role model.

Oforlea: I would like to piggyback off of where you left off and ask you to talk more about the summer program that you created at Georgia Tech.

May: Okay. That program is called the SURE Program, and I originally created it at UC Berkeley while a graduate student, and it was called the SUPERB program.

That program came out of the same experience I mentioned before. At Berkeley there were very few African American students in the graduate program, and we wanted to figure out a way to create a situation where there are more students in the admission pool.

The biggest problem we noticed was that no one knew what graduate research was like, so we start having this summer program where we recruited undergrads and gave them a taste of graduate life and research.  And, so I took the same idea to Georgia Tech and expanded on it, and the program is actually still going on 27 years later.

I am really proud of that program because many of the students who got involved went on to graduate school, won fellowships, etc.  By the time I left Georgia Tech, we were the number one producer of STEM Ph.D.s among minorities. So that was the genesis of many other things we did in this area.

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

May: 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.

Oforlea: 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?

May: 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.