Chancellor Gary S. May


Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Friday, Oct. 27, 2017

Here is the transcript of Gary S. May’s address at his investiture ceremony.


Thank you, President Napolitano, Regent (George) Kieffer, distinguished members of the stage party, faculty and staff, colleagues, students, members of the Davis community. Thank you, everyone, for coming out today. Wow. Thank you, everyone, for coming today. I can’t tell you how much this really means to me. You sure know how to make a new chancellor feel honored.

This is truly a dream come true.

I have dreamed for a long time of standing on a stage like this, all decked out in full academic regalia — the robe, the hood, the tam and the bling — and saying out loud: Hi, Mom! It’s me up here, your son. Can you believe this? Did you ever imagine me becoming the leader of a major university?

Well, I no longer have to dream, and she doesn’t need to imagine. My mother is right here in the audience, and you just heard me tell her what I have longed to say.

I also have to say this: Thank you, Mom. Thank you for all those nights you spent helping me with my homework, after spending the whole day in school, teaching other kids.

Thanks for getting me those jigsaw puzzles, Legos and Erector sets. I didn’t know it then, of course, but looking back now I can see how assembling blocks and beams and puzzles taught me the joy of building and creating. My low-tech creations became the seeds of my academic career in engineering.

Thanks, Mom, for putting me in good schools and for making college a priority for me in the May family. And, most of all, thank you for believing in me.

My father, Warren May Jr., could not be here. He passed away in 2006. But he believed in me, too. Even before I was born, he told anyone who would listen that his son was going to be president one day. He was almost right. I know he would be proud today.

My sister, Angela, is here. We are very close, as I said in the video. I always say she was my first best friend growing up. That knockout line has a little explanation that’s required — later. Her support has meant everything to me.

I have a lot more people to thank for helping me get where I am today. I’ll never be able to name them all, so please bear with me.

As I said in the video, in the South, there’s an expression that goes like this: If a turtle is sitting on a fencepost, it didn’t get there by itself. Somebody helped that turtle get on the post.

People have helped me. My dad may not be here, but I am blessed to have other father figures. Wayne Clough, whom you just heard from, is among them. Wayne took a personal interest in me and taught me how to be a leader and a campus CEO. He is a true statesman, role model, mentor and friend. I would not be here but for his exemplary leadership. There were many times in my first three months here at Davis, I found myself asking, “What would Wayne do?”

Speaking of role models, Augustine Esogbue participated in today’s processional. “Dr. E.” was the first black engineering professor at Georgia Tech. I wanted to be like him. We all did. The stylish clothes, the intellect, the suave accent, fancy cars. He has been there for me throughout my career. He was there when I got my Ph.D. at Berkeley, and he is here today. I can’t thank him enough for his steadfast support.

While on the subject of father figures, I would be remiss if I did not also acknowledge my “other mothers” who are here with us today: my godmother, Janie Hughes, and my mother-in-law, Carol Lee, are here today.

I also have students to thank for teaching me the value of being a mentor. I have three of my 22 former Ph.D. students here with us today: Doctors Cleon Davis, Gregory Triplett and Frances Williams.

They all have had success, and I am proud of them. Gregory and Frances also go by the title “Dean” these days. Cleon’s story I wanted to highlight because I think it is particularly compelling.

He was misdiagnosed as a child with a learning disability. An active and a curious kid, he was pigeonholed as a slow learner, placed in a special education class, and driven to and from his elementary school in a bus for special ed kids. But eventually his mother successfully insisted that the school place him in mainstream classes.

Eventually, this “slow learner” who had been stuck in the special education class went on to graduate with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from one of the top five engineering schools in the country — Georgia Tech. He is now a member of the technical staff of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

My experience with Dr. Davis cemented my belief that anybody can reach their full potential and be successful if given the right tools, training and motivation.

This belief is reflected in my long association with the National Society of Black Engineers, which seeks to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community. Several of my NSBE colleagues are here. Please stand and be recognized.

Overall, we have a very select audience here this afternoon. We could not let just anybody attend, however. We had to carefully screen out anyone who had previously heard any of the jokes that I’ve recycled for this very special event. I thought that when you changed institutions, your jokes had new shelf life. I’m not sure how Andy Jones got in the door, anyway.

But, let me just say, I’ve noted that many of my predecessors here did not need much in the way of introductions at their inaugurations. They were familiar names and faces in the UC system.

Stanley Freeborn was the first UC Davis chancellor. He was the dean of the College of Agriculture at UC Berkeley. Emil Mrak was a food science professor here. James Meyer was dean of the UC Davis College of Agriculture, as it was called then. Theodore Hullar was chancellor of UC Riverside. And Larry Vanderhoef was executive vice chancellor here for 10 years before his promotion to chancellor.

As for me, I stopped by the campus once about 30 years ago when I was a grad student at UC Berkeley. Clearly, I must have made a lasting impression.

But, as the new kid on the block, I guess I am in need of an introduction.

I am a lifelong educator. I believe that education is the key to a successful and productive life, and that it must be affordable and accessible to everyone.

The roots of my belief in the value of education run at least four generations deep in my family. I am told that my great-great-grandfather Theodore May instilled in his nine sons a strong work ethic and a strong belief in the power of education, even though they weren’t able to get a formal education at the time.

He was a British indentured servant who came to the United States to work off his debt. He eventually married a woman named Minerva Cavendish, a former slave. That was pretty radical back then –– a white guy marrying a former slave. The Mays were always trendsetters.

Theodore May’s values carried on through to my generation. My father, Warren, was a postal clerk. He did not get a college degree until later in life, but he was a very smart, very determined guy.

I have a pretty modest and humble background. My parents did not have many resources, but they were both very clear to my sister and I that education was important. Right, Angie?

My mother, Gloria, was a schoolteacher, as I said. She taught kindergarten and first grade for more than 40 years in the St. Louis public school system. She checked my homework every night, and she continues to help me with all sorts of things even to this day. In fact, she sent me some language for this speech.

My mom was the first in her family to go to college. She was among the very first African Americans to integrate the University of Missouri.

She got called names and had some unpleasant things happen, but she was proud to graduate with a degree in education so that she could have the career that she wanted as a teacher. She modeled determination in ways I will never forget.

My dad did everything he could to make sure my sister and I had a good education. In grade school, he’d give me a dollar for every “A” that I earned –– which, when you earn straight “A’s” –– is a pretty good deal. Because comic books were cheap back then.

As a student, I had a talent for math and science, which helped me progress through three degrees. But I always was troubled by the fact that I was one of very few people of color in the class or the laboratory.

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

I was drawn to UC Davis first and foremost because it is a great university. We have a great reputation, nationally and internationally, for excellence in teaching, scholarship and research.

But as the late Chancellor Vanderhoef said in his inauguration speech 23 years ago, “The pursuit of diversity is part and parcel with the pursuit of academic excellence.”

UC Davis has demonstrated a strong commitment to diversity in its student body, its staff and its faculty. At Davis, diversity is not just a buzzword. It is not window dressing or a bow to political correctness. It is one of our great strengths. We are committed to diversity because it is integral to our success.

With diversity comes a wider and more interesting range of experiences, ideas, opinions and perceptions. The greater the mix, the more likely we will make discoveries and solve problems — the hallmarks of academic excellence.

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

Finally, I was drawn to UC Davis because of our 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.

Becoming UC Davis chancellor was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and the timing was perfect because our daughters, Simone and Jordan, are out of high school and in college now. More on them later.

What’s more, my wife, LeShelle, has been able to continue her own career at CNN as a software developer, working from home at Davis. More on her later, too.

It’s no small bonus having right at our fingertips this Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, plus the concert hall at the Ann E. Pitzer Center, and the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

We can enjoy arts and music from around the world without spending half of our lives in traffic or searching for a parking space. We can actually walk here from our house.

Being chancellor of UC Davis is definitely a dream job, the culmination of my career. I must admit, though, that it was not easy leaving Georgia Tech. I spent most of my adult life and academic career in Atlanta. We were honored with more than a dozen farewell parties before we moved here. Many Georgia Tech friends are also here for my investiture. Please stand and be recognized.

There’s no doubt that UC Davis was meant for me. This campus teems with excellence, innovation and a spirit of inclusion that attract the brightest minds from around the globe.

I believe I have arrived during what is potentially the most exciting chapter in Davis history. You heard from the president of our alumni association, Debby Stegura. You heard her say that “our blue and gold has never been stronger, more enthused or more committed.” I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve always said that if I was going to leave Georgia Tech it would have to be for either a top-notch institution or a great location.

I happened to get both.

UC Davis is home to the best agricultural and environmental sciences college in the country, if not the world, and our School of Veterinary Medicine consistently ranks No.1 worldwide.

As the most comprehensive campus in the UC system, we also have excellence in the arts, social sciences and humanities. Many of our graduate programs continue to receive accolades. For example, English and political science are now ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report.

In fact, Davis enjoys excellence across the spectrum of academic disciplines, resulting in our consistent ranking as one of the nation’s top-10 public research universities.

LeShelle and I are both happy to be at a place that does such critical work, and we will do our best to take that work to the next level.

I began my work of moving UC Davis forward on August 1st, my first day on the job, when we announced that I had embarked on an intensive listening tour that will continue through the fall.

My first stop was actually before that, in the form of many conference calls with Ralph Hexter, my friend and our provost who served as interim chancellor for 15 months. He could not have been more helpful in easing my transition to campus leadership. Provost Hexter, please stand to be recognized.

I’ve been meeting all of the different UC Davis stakeholders and constituents to hear about what you think is important, what you are proud of and what you think we need to do better. That’s students, that’s faculty, that’s staff on our UC Davis and Sacramento campuses. It’s also our alumni, donors, government leaders and news media.

I noticed right away that everyone is very passionate about UC Davis, and their passion takes several forms. Some are excited about athletics — can I get a “Go Aggies?”

Others are passionate about our lifesaving work at the schools of medicine and veterinary medicine, or our advancements in patient care at the nursing school.

And, I’m not sure, but I think the African American community seems a bit excited that I’m the first African American chancellor at UC Davis.

In making my rounds, I have heard many alumni and others describe Davis as kind of a sleeping giant, a powerful institution that has yet to show the full extent of its power.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it is time for this giant to wake up.

Whether it’s our record fundraising, our record research expenditures, our athletic teams making campus history, our noteworthy achievements in scholarship or our overall ranking as a top-10 public research university, UC Davis is unmistakably on the rise.

Increasingly, UC Davis propels social mobility across California and the nation, graduating large numbers of students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, such as families with no previous college degrees.

Increasingly, our university makes headlines on the frontlines of today’s humanitarian crises, be it health care, public health, global hunger, water scarcity, immigration, climate change, poverty or environmental impoverishment.

People are stunned once they learn about UC Davis’ accomplishments — our groundbreaking research in so many fields, our contributions to prosperity in the Sacramento region, our empowering students to do good in the world.

My goal is to make us one of the handful of universities that’s on the tip of the tongue when you talk about the nation’s great public research universities — and we are not far from that now.

Davis is on the map, but not necessarily the map that resides in the minds of some outsiders. A lot of people outside of academia — particularly those east of the Rockies — simply don’t have a notion about UC Davis or even where we are located.

“Davis, is that the one near Disneyland?” Uh … no.

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

To promote UC Davis to the next level, we have initiated the development of a universitywide strategic plan — one that assembles our many outstanding pieces into a coherent whole and provides a road map to preeminence.

I gave that plan a name, “To Boldly Go.” Some of you would prefer “To Go Boldly.” Yeah, it’s a phrase that reflects my love of Star Trek, but it also sets a tone that UC Davis is moving forward with confidence and commitment to excellence like never before.

Who will stand in the way of a university that wants to boldly go where no university has gone before? Resistance is futile.

One of the key goals is to strengthen UC Davis’ ties with the greater Sacramento region. One way to do that is through the establishment of more mutually beneficial relationships — particularly in the area of economic development.

So, I am working with Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, a UC Davis alum, and regional business leaders on establishing a technology-focused innovation ecosystem in Sacramento, similar to Technology Square in Atlanta — which you heard about from Dr. Clough — a thriving partnership between Georgia Tech, the city and the business community.

Such an enterprise would give our students and companies better access to one another for employment opportunities — and would also make it easier for companies to collaborate on research with our faculty, our postdocs and our graduate students.

We have the three pillars needed to have a transformative impact on our region: a world-class university, a world-class city that Sacramento can be, and an engaged and enthusiastic business community.

UC Davis can be pivotal in growing a new economy in our region, one grounded in technological innovation. Every month our campus launches a new business startup in fields that play to our strengths, such as biotechnology, food technology and nutrition.

The city of Sacramento and the region’s business community are ripe for an innovation ecosystem, and my experience with Tech Square in Atlanta will make it easier for me to move forward with something similar here. I’m very excited about it. We’re calling it “Aggie Square.” Stay tuned.

As chancellor, I’ll be the university’s biggest cheerleader, and you can bet that I will cheer on the Aggie spirit of innovation, community engagement, public service, and research with measureable social and economic impact.

Now, to put everyone’s minds at ease, I think I need to make to make it clear that my vision of technological innovation does not involve either Lego or Erector sets.

I have outgrown those toys. However, I cannot say the same for comic books.

Some of you may wonder why a distinguished university leader recognized for serious scholarship still collects and reads comic books.

Some of you may also wonder why LeShelle hasn’t tossed those 13,000 comic books that are taking up so much valuable space.

Well, the fact is that the X-Men, the Avengers and the Justice League are using their powers for good, and that it what I am about.

Every day, I try to learn something, to help someone and to make the world better. I challenge everyone here to do the same. 

I hope that over the years, people will see my leadership as visible, approachable and accessible — with a dose of humor now and then. I think they’ll see that I have the best interests of the students and the university at heart.

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.

George Bernard Shaw said, “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

Those ideas will last forever.

At UC Davis, it’s our responsibility to generate and propagate the ideas that will make the world better and that will last forever.

As I conclude, let me end my remarks as I began, by thanking some very important people.

Let me first borrow from President Obama’s tribute to his own daughters to express the feelings that I have for mine: Simone and Jordan, despite all I’ve done in my life, you are my greatest accomplishments.

To my wife, LeShelle, I say — and I think you would agree — you are the best thing to ever happen to me. I don’t know if there is such a thing as love at first sight, but the first time I saw you, almost 24 years ago, you were so stunningly beautiful I could barely speak. You still are. No one could imagine a better partner, a stronger supporter or a better friend. I love you unconditionally and eternally.

As the lyrics of one of my favorite Stevie Wonder songs say — the song is “As” — “God knew exactly where he wanted me to be placed.”

I am well placed, and I am ready to help UC Davis go boldly as no university has gone before.

Thank you all for welcoming me. I’m thrilled to be here. God bless you. God bless UC Davis. Live long and prosper.