Future Forward Transcript

Chancellor Gary S. May

Future Forward

Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center

Monday, Sept. 25, 2017

Here is the transcript of Gary S. May’s “Future Forward” speech from today (Sept. 25). This was his first major address since taking office as UC Davis’ seventh chancellor.


Wow. What a terrific turnout! I knew Scott (Moak, master of ceremonies, Sacramento Kings executive and public-address announcer) was popular, and that he can fill the Golden 1 Center. Didn’t know that he could also pack Jackson Hall. Thank you, Scott. Way to go!

Let me also just say thank you to our students (those who played piano and sang the national anthem, and the spoken-word performers). You spoke to my spirit. One of the reasons I came here (UC Davis).

What an honor it is to be chancellor! What an honor it is to lead an institution of such excellence.

As you know, I am a newcomer to UC Davis. So, I have been on a steep learning curve since I assumed the chancellorship on August 1st.

Ralph Hexter, my friend and our provost who served as interim chancellor for 15 months, could not have been more helpful in easing my transition to campus leadership. And countless others in our university community have gone out of their way to welcome me and to show me the lay of the land. I deeply appreciate all of this, though I still have some nagging questions about UC Davis. Maybe you can help me.

For example, could someone please tell me, help me understand why hammocks are provided on the Quad and not in the chancellor’s office? 

Also, how come nobody uses that wonderful outdoor balcony on the top of Mrak Hall? There’s plenty of room out there for hammocks.

One more thing: Can you really get academic credit here for making coffee? You know, as I studied, I saw that there’s a course called “The Design of Coffee.” Now, whoever wrote the course description should be in our student recruiting or marketing department. It’s described as a “nonmathematical introduction to chemical engineering, as illustrated by the roasting and brewing of coffee.” Brilliant!

Why UC Davis?

So, yes, I am a newcomer, but I have plenty of good company. We have 9,165 new freshmen and transfer students entering UC Davis this fall.

So, why are they all coming here? Why UC Davis? I bet their reasons are much the same as mine were.

I was drawn to UC Davis first and foremost because it’s a great university. We have a great reputation — nationally and internationally — for excellence in teaching, scholarship and research. Students know that a degree from UC Davis is a golden ticket. They know that success here puts them on the road to success in the job market and fulfilling their careers.

I was attracted to UC Davis also because of its reputation as a socioeconomic escalator for students from all backgrounds. Washington Monthly magazine ranked us in the top 10 among American universities for promoting social mobility and public good.

Another attribute that drew me to UC Davis is its strong commitment to diversity in its student body, its faculty and staff. As a student, I had a talent for math and science, which helped me progress through three degrees. But I was always troubled by the fact that I was one of very few people of color in the class or in the laboratory. 

So, as a faculty member and as dean of engineering at Georgia Tech, I worked very hard to change that. I developed programs to attract, mentor and retain underrepresented women and ethnic minorities in the STEM fields.

My hope is to make UC Davis one of the most diverse universities in the country, and certainly among the best in the world at what we do.

I was also drawn to UC Davis because it is regarded as the world’s leading model of an environmentally sustainable campus and because of its stellar record of doing good in the world — locally, nationally and globally. In fact, the Princeton Review just released its annual list of greenest schools, and UC Davis placed 10th on the list.

Listening-and-learning tour

As I said, I have been on an intensive listening-and-learning tour for the past seven weeks, and the tour will continue through the fall. I have been meeting with as many different interest groups as I can to find out what excites them about UC Davis, what issues they care about and how we can improve.

The universe of stakeholders who are truly interested in our success is much larger and much more diverse than you might imagine. There are, of course, the students, faculty and staff, but also alumni, parents, donors and a wide range of community activists, elected officials, educational leaders and business interests.

What I’ve learned is that our stakeholders are very passionate about UC Davis. They feel very strongly about their connection to us. They feel very close to their UC Davis family — long after they graduate — and they’re nostalgic about the campus grounds — the Quad, the arboretum, the water towers, the hammocks. They want us to be successful. They want us to be a leader.

My many meet-and-greets would be exhausting if they weren’t so exhilarating. I started my first day on the job with a breakfast reception at UC Davis Health where I was treated to Star Trek-themed cookies. I watched the eclipse from the UC Davis research boat on Lake Tahoe. How cool is that? I cheered with Aggie fans at our first football game of the season.

I’ve had a lot of fun exploring UC Davis and the Sacramento region with my wife, LeShelle, and our daughters, Simone and Jordan, who just returned to college themselves. They were amused to see livestock on campus, by the way. I have them on my Facebook page taking selfies with a cow. After all, that’s the Aggie way.

UC Davis’ profile

I’m truly excited to be chancellor at UC Davis, and I truly believe that I’ve joined UC Davis during the most exciting chapter in our history.

As chancellor, I get to be head cheerleader for a university that has so much going for it, a university on the rise with exceptional capabilities to address the humanitarian crises of our time — be it health care or public health, immigration, climate change, poverty or environmental impoverishment.

We have the best veterinary medicine and agricultural sciences programs in the world. We’re tops nationally in food science, and we have exceptional strengths in medicine, law, engineering, nursing, education, arts and humanities. Through our four colleges and six professional schools, Davis has greater disciplinary and professional breadth than any other UC campus.

These are game-changing times for UC Davis. Aggie Pride is all around us, whether it’s in our men’s and women’s basketball teams making campus history, or the university as a whole being consistently ranked among the top 10 public research universities in the United States.

But here’s the thing: For all of its excellence and accomplishments, UC Davis is still far from achieving its highest potential. And considering how good it already is — how good we already are — and all that UC Davis contributes to society, Davis is still too little known and too little appreciated by the general public.

If you’re not in higher education, like me, and you’re from east of the Rockies, you may not have heard much about UC Davis. 

But UC Davis should come up in the conversation when parents around the country sit down with their teenagers to discuss college options. I think it happens with some of our UC sister schools, and there’s no reason why UC Davis couldn’t be a part of the same conversation.

UC Davis has been described to me by many alums and others as kind of a sleeping giant. Maybe that explains the hammocks, by the way. But it’s time for that giant to wake up!

We’ve got some of the best programs in the world. We’re in a great location. We’ve got an engaged alumni and business and community leaders who are truly interested in our success.

We raised $250 million in philanthropy during this past year, making it the highest donation total in a single year in school history. And the year before that saw yet another record-breaking total. This speaks volumes about our upward momentum, our community’s enthusiasm for UC Davis and the important work we accomplish here.

I’ve had several meetings with regional leaders in business, government, and academia, and also philanthropic organizations and donors. I’ve seen that, once people learn about UC Davis’ cutting-edge work in so many fields — how we contribute to economic prosperity locally and around the globe, and what we are doing to provide high-quality education that is both accessible and affordable – they’re stunned. They move from merely thinking well of UC Davis to wanting to actively contribute and be a part of our success. 

I’ve learned that we have an extremely compelling institutional story to tell, and the more we get that story out to potential partners and supporters, the greater we can become, and the more effectively we can serve the public.

Strategic Plan: ‘To Boldly Go’

So, it’s time to let the secret out. 

We need to do a better job of telling our story so we can continue to attract the best professors and researchers and the most talented students. The story of UC Davis has yet to be fully told. 

The series of articles we have running now in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as sponsored content, exemplify the direction we need to go. They show the nation that UC Davis is a powerhouse of innovation, addressing climate change and other environmental challenges.

What’s really needed to promote the university to the next level is a strategic plan — one that assembles our many outstanding pieces into a coherent whole and provides a road map to preeminence.

Campus leadership will be getting together with student, faculty, staff and community representatives on October 10th to kick off that planning process. We’ll provide ample opportunity for comment and discussion at various public forums. Now, I’m aiming to have a final plan ready for release in 2018.

I gave the plan a name, “To Boldly Go” — or if you don’t like split infinitives, “To Go Boldly” — to set a tone that UC Davis is moving forward with confidence and commitment to excellence like never before. That expression is instantly familiar to my fellow Star Trek fans. Who will stand in the way of a university who wants to boldly go where no university has gone before? Resistance is futile.

Strengthening our ties with Sacramento

I hope that one of the key components of this plan will enhance the university’s relationship with the city of Sacramento and the greater Sacramento region. The communities that surround us need to see the value of a public research university.

As you know, we already have a strong presence in Sacramento with UC Davis Health. But I think there are other mutually beneficial possibilities to explore.

Now, at Georgia Tech, I helped to launch an innovation ecosystem called Technology Square that links the city of Atlanta, the university and the business community. 

The innovation ecosystem, or hub, gives students easier access to companies for employment and allows companies to collaborate on research with faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

I’ve had discussions already with Mayor Darrell Steinberg and Sacramento business leaders on how this idea might be adapted to our region. The mayor has already toured Tech Square in Atlanta at my invitation.

There seems to be some traction for this idea, and I’m pretty excited about it. I’m calling it “Aggie Square.” You like that? I’m confident that a stronger partnership between UC Davis and the greater Sacramento region will benefit us all for decades to come.

This is who we are

The building blocks of our strategic plan can be found by identifying the strengths that make our university distinctive and unique — strengths that can be leveraged to raise the university as a whole.

Several of those strengths are intangibles embodied in our Principles of Community, which were first drafted in the 1990s, when this campus was struggling with freedom of expression issues — as some campuses are today. If you haven’t read those principles, I strongly encourage you to do so.

These principles include our longstanding commitment to and appreciation of a diverse community, of equal opportunity for a first-class education regardless of one’s background, of freedom of expression, regardless of how different those ideas may be.

I’m a champion of equal access to education and opportunity for students of all backgrounds. At UC Davis, we open our doors to the world and give the best and brightest a chance to shine, no matter where they happened to be born.

Abandoning DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – runs counter to our principles of open and equal access to higher education for students of all backgrounds. Turning our back on these students is not who we are.

I had the pleasure of meeting some of our DACA students recently at a reception for Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Those students are bright, exceptional and hard-working, and they made me proud.

When California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced at a press conference that the state is suing the administration over its decision to end the DACA program that shields young immigrants from deportation, he had at his side Eva Jimenez, a political science-public service major here at UC Davis who was brought to the United States when she was just 4 years old. Eva said she is terrified that the program might end.

Karla Ornelas, another UC Davis undergraduate — a pre-med student who registered for the DACA program — recently told Kaiser Health News of her dreams to become a doctor and return to her childhood roots in the Central Valley where there is a great need for doctors, especially bilingual ones.

Karla and Eva represent the best of UC Davis and I applaud them for their courage in speaking out publicly. We stand firmly by them, and by all of our DACA students.

Student body diversity

Our newest class of undergraduates is expected to be the most diverse class ever at our university. As of last fall, our enrollment of new undergraduates from historically underrepresented groups — African American, American Indian and Chicano/Latino — stood at 26 percent.

This is impressive, but we have a way to go before our student demographic reflects the ethnic makeup of California’s population.

In California, more than half the K-12 students are of Chicano/Latino background. And the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the applicant pool for the UC system are Chicano/Latino students.

With this fall’s newcomers, we now meet the numeric threshold for becoming a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution. Yes, a big deal. This means that Chicanos and Latinos now comprise at least 25 percent of our domestic undergraduate student body. Attaining this status opens the door to millions of dollars in federal grants to help these students to succeed in college.

Attainment of HSI status, however, does not mean the mission is accomplished. We know that it’s not enough to just increase the number of Chicano/Latino students on our campus. As with all our students, we must do everything we can to help them succeed.

So, this Wednesday (Sept. 27), we will be opening a center in our Memorial Union that will provide academic support and advice for Chicano/Latino students — particularly the first-generation students — those who have no college-educated parents to turn to for advice on how to navigate classes, finances and extracurricular activities.

This center, or El Centro, is among the new and expanding student success centers to support underrepresented groups — African American, Chicano/Latino and Native American — to improve retention and graduation rates, and reduce the time necessary to earn a degree.

First-generation students and faculty

An astounding 44 percent of the students who entered UC Davis last fall were in the first generation of their family to attend a four-year college. Our data on this metric date back to fall 1999. Back then, only 38 percent of the incoming undergraduates were first-gen.

What we want these students to know is just how many of their faculty members have had that same experience. This past spring, Undergraduate Education launched a campuswide effort to identify and recruit first-generation faculty as models of success to mentor and advise our growing population of first-generation students. 

So far, 385 faculty members have stepped forward as mentors with inspiring stories to share. They’re all going to get this cool T-shirt that identifies them as first-gen college grads. I don’t get one, unfortunately. Somebody ought to fix that. The plan is to have them sport these shirts on Wednesday (Sept. 27) when classes begin.

One of the strengths of UC Davis that attracts so many first-gen students here is our personality — an inclusive and welcoming character that’s pervasive.

This is the character I strive to project — and I expect members of our campus leadership to do the same. 

To get the new academic year on the right foot, I drafted myself and my wife and the deans and the vice chancellors on campus to roll up their sleeves to help students and their families move into the residence halls this weekend. I think we pulled it off without bodily harm or property damage, or at least none that came to my attention. There were some crying parents. One woman was crying profusely, and I said, “Where are you from? It must be from a far distance because you are so unhappy to leave your daughter.” She said, “Sonoma.”

A superhero challenge

I would like to conclude by answering a question I often get asked by those who have read my bio or seen my personal Facebook posts. They wonder why a distinguished university leader recognized for serious scholarship has not outgrown his childhood fascination with superheroes. 

And the follow-up question always comes: “Why hasn’t LeShelle tossed those 13,000 comic books taking up space on the bookshelves at home?”

Well, the fact is that the X-Men, the Avengers and the Justice League are using their powers for good, and that continues to appeal to me.

The way I live my life is that I try every day to learn something, to help someone and to make the world better. And I challenge everyone here to do the same. 

If we can all think like that and use that as a guide in our own lives, we’ll be doing something that is extraordinary.

I don’t want UC Davis to be a place that only trains and educates students.  I want us to actually empower them — like superheroes — to be agents of their own success, their career and their destiny, and to do some good in the world.

As faculty members, administrators, staff and fellow students, we all have a role to play to make that happen.

Thank you all for welcoming me as the new chancellor. I’m thrilled to be here. I am ready to help UC Davis go boldly as no university has gone before.

Live long and prosper.