My Diversity Story: Strengthening Innovation and Social Outcomes

Chancellor May leaning on an Egghead in front of Mrak Hall.

My Diversity Story: Strengthening Innovation and Social Outcomes

Chancellor May made this presentation to the Gladstone Institutes on July 20, 2020.


Good morning, everyone. Last week, I had an opportunity to speak with a group of Gladstone investigators and learn more about your organization. And I’m very pleased to speak with the larger group today.

First, I’d like to thank your president, Deepak Srivastava and Todd and Meg McDevitt for inviting me and for hosting these “Critical Conversations” about diversity and inequity. It’s important that we talk about these issues, even when it sometimes can be uncomfortable.

Today, I was asked to share some of my personal diversity story.I’ve spent much of my career working to increase diversity on college campuses and in the workforce, particularly in STEM fields. Today, that’s more important than ever. Events of recent months have only reaffirmed the need to build an inclusive society that recognizes and respects people of all backgrounds and experiences. I’m talking about the disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on people of color. And also the nationwide social justice unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. George Floyd joins a long list of unarmed Black and brown men and women, whose names you will recognize. Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant. Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. That incident happened 2 miles from where I grew up in St. Louis. Each time this has happened, I’ve thought: “It could have been me.”

At a traffic stop, no one knows I’m Chancellor of UC Davis. No one knows I have a Ph.D. I’m just a Black man in a car. As an African American man, there are so many incidents of “microaggressions” that you experience throughout your life and career. Sometimes you become numb to them, but then something like the killing of George Floyd happens and it brings everything back to the forefront.

You think about the times when you were treated in a questionable or different way. And you wonder: Was that because I’m Black or was it something else? Is it just normal behavior around here? And you just never know what the truth is. I’ll quote James Baldwin, one of my heroes. In 1961, he spoke about being Black in America. “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” I’ve often felt that very viscerally, that quote. Baldwin also argued that “a complex thing can’t be made simple.” Fundamentally, I think that’s the challenge of diversity, equity and inclusion work that we do today. In 2020, it’s a tall order to tackle a problem that has persisted for so many years. We need a wide range of initiatives to address the inequities that persist for women and people of color, especially in the STEM fields. And it will take a long-term commitment.

Still, I think we have a unique opportunity in this moment to create change. All across the country, we’ve heard the calls for social justice. In these polarizing times, embracing diversity and inclusion is central for our humanity and evolution as a society. Each one of us must do what we can – where we are – to eliminate racism, sexism, and other negative influences on our progression as a nation. And to be clear, when I refer to diversity, I’m talking about the full array of nationalities, the full spectrum of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. As well as a wide variety of political views and gender identities. And a rich diversity of talents and skill sets.

In a moment, I’ll talk more about the benefits of diversity and inclusion. But first, I want to share my personal journey through my life and leadership opportunities. So, let me take you back. And I mean, all the way back, to the beginning. Yes, that’s me posing for the camera. I was born in St. Louis and raised by my parents, Gloria and Warren May.

Unlike many leaders in higher education, I come from a fairly humble background. My Mom spent 40 years teaching in St. Louis public schools. My Dad was a postal worker. He didn’t get a college degree until later in life, but he was a very smart, determined guy.  Here I am as a teenager with my Mom and Dad.  This was taken in the late-1970s in St. Louis. Thank goodness Mom’s smile was big enough for Dad and me, because we were both trying to be cool there. You can see my Dad was pretty sharp. He taught me the value of carrying yourself with confidence.

Education was a core value in the May family – and still is. I was lucky to have an affinity for math and sciences while growing up. I often credit my early love of Legos and Erector sets for sparking the engineer in me. The extra dollar my dad slipped me for every “A” on my report card was also a good motivator. Either way, I took my studies seriously and was selected as a Presidential Scholar in high school.

To the left is the note I received from President Ronald Regan. The other picture shows me shaking hands with First Lady Nancy Reagan at the Presidential Scholar ceremony in D.C. That was a really proud moment for me and my family. My Mom remains one of my greatest sources of inspiration. Here we are at my Investiture in 2017, after I was sworn-in as UC Davis’ seventh chancellor. I’m also the first African American chancellor at UC Davis and the second in the entire University of California system. (The first was Michael Drake. He just made history again by becoming the first African American president of the UC system, succeeding Janet Napolitano.)

My Mom was a groundbreaker, in her own right. She was among the first to integrate the University of Missouri in the 1950’s. I think of what she endured in her pursuit of higher education, and even now, I carry her lessons in tenacity and self-determination. My Mom entered the University of Missouri during the era of Jim Crow, the laws that enforced segregation in the south and other parts of the country. It seems like Jim Crow laws were from so long ago, but they really weren’t. That was just one generation removed from me. Anyways, when my Mom showed up to the dorms for the first time, the house mother got really upset. She didn’t like that Black girls were going to be living there. She even questioned where they were going to shower. My Mom never gave up, despite the hateful language and other incidents that came her way. She didn’t let anyone get between her and her goal of earning a college degree.

I learned quickly to follow her example when I started as an undergrad at Georgia Tech. I had to stay focused and learn to rise above adversity.

On my very first day at the dorms, I found “N-word lover” written on my roommate’s name card on the door. My Mom and Dad were upset and nervous when they saw this. But I said it could be worse. I’m glad to be living with the “lover,” rather than the person who wrote this on the door. So, I persevered and pressed on – just like my Mom did at the University of Missouri. You can’t let the bigots win, whether they’re trying to deflate you through racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever “ism” it is.

I had another awakening while I was earning my degree in electrical engineering. I’d look around the laboratories and lecture halls and realize I was usually the only Black person in the room. That just didn’t feel right so that became my motivation to make a difference. I looked for people to inspire and mentor me. As an undergraduate student, I saw a whole new world of possibilities open up that were embodied in the man pictured here. This is Dr. Augustine Esogbue, the first black engineering professor at Georgia Tech. He had it all … the sharp clothes, the fancy clothes, the intellect. We all wanted to be like “Dr. E.” He took me under his wing, and my world opened up. I saw for the first time a Black man finding success in the engineering.

I think everyone needs some help along the way and to be able to see themselves in these roles. So, I’m a huge proponent of mentorship. One of my favorite quotes about mentorship comes from the former surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, who said, “You can’t be what you don’t see.” Along with finding mentors, I wanted to build community with my peers. I found an incredible source for that with the National Society of Black Engineers. This organization was founded in the mid-1970s, and I joined a few years later as an undergrad at Georgia Tech.

The NSBE was a game changer for me. It helped me connect with others who had the same passion for engineering. We could relate to each others’ struggles and stories of feeling isolated. We were looking for mentors and wanted to help others along the way as well. The NSBE allowed me to hone my leadership skills. I served as national vice chair from 1985 to 1987, and national chair from 1987 to 1989. I worked hard to grow the organization and helped the organization buy its first headquarters building in Alexandria, Virginia. As a lifetime member, I get to connect with NSBE even today. I also met my wife through NSBE. So, a great experience for me. Through my involvement with the NSBE, I entered graduate school feeling pretty confident about the next chapter of my life.

Here’s a flashback to my graduation from UC Berkeley, where I earned my masters and Ph.D in electrical and computer engineering. nI think of this time as an important part of my development – not just academically, but as a key period in growing my leadership skills. I helped form the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students at UC Berkeley. It was clear that African American students were abysmally underrepresented in graduate school, especially in the STEM fields.

In fact, when I got my Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1991, I was one of only about 31 African Americans that year who had earned a doctorate in the field of engineering. I’m talking 31 in the entire United States! Along with supporting my peers in the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Students, I worked to create other programs as well. One of those is called SUPERB, which stands for Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley. Our goal was to bring together a diverse, talented pool of students and motivate them toward graduate school.

I’m proud to say the SUPERB program continues to this day, as shown by these recent participants. I wanted to re-create the spirit of SUPERB when I joined the faculty of Georgia Tech in 1991. So, I helped create was the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science – otherwise known as the SURE program.

With the help of a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, every summer we hosted underrepresented students at Georgia Tech to perform research. Ultimately, our goal was to see them pursue a graduate degree. And that’s exactly what happened. During that time, we saw over 73% of SURE students enroll in graduate school.

I also served as co-creator and co-director of two other programs: the Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science (FACES) and the University Center of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEM) programs. The goal for both of these programs was to increase the number of underrepresented Ph.D. recipients from Georgia Tech. I’m proud to say we were successful. Over the duration of FACES, more than 400 people of color received Ph.D. degrees in science or engineering at Georgia Tech. At the time, that was the most in such fields in the nation.

My Dad used to say that one day I’d be president. That didn’t happen obviously, but I did get to meet one or two of them. In 2015, I received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from President Barack Obama. This was due to my efforts in supporting underrepresented students at Georgia Tech and the successes we achieved. Receiving that award from President Obama made me reflect on the people who’d helped bring me to this point. I thought of my parents, of course, and Dr. E from Georgia Tech. I thought of my wife, LeShelle, and our two daughters, Simone and Jordan, all the people who’d brought love and support to my life. It was definitely a career highlight.

I also thought of the man on the far right, Wayne Clough, President Emeritus of Georgia Tech. Our relationship goes back more than two decades. In 2002, he gave me a pivotal opportunity in my career by selecting me as faculty executive assistant at Georgia Tech. I was something like a chief of staff for Wayne. I learned about high-level administrative responsibilities in academia, and how complex organizations like these are run. Wayne really taught me about effective leadership. I learned that a president or chancellor of a university is a lot like being a mayor or a CEO. You have a lot of people with many diverse interests competing for your time and resources. You have to be diplomatic but decisive in tough situations. And, you need to set the example and tone for others to follow. He also taught me that an effective leader needs to be a good listener. You don’t need to be the kind of person who likes to hear themselves talk and own the room. What matters more is hearing people out, processing that information and encouraging others to collaborate and find solutions. More than anything, Wayne taught me the value of a good team. Surround yourself with the right people, and you’re likely to find success.

I carried all these lessons with me to UC Davis. I’d had a great run at Georgia Tech, serving as dean for the College of Engineering. I’d also spent six years as the Steve W. Chaddick School Chair of the School of Electrical & Computer Engineering. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to lead at UC Davis. We’re currently ranked as the #5 public university in the nation by the Wall Street Journal. We’re located in the heart of Northern California, just about 10 miles from Sacramento and its center of political power. We provide a pipeline of talent to the Silicon Valley and the broader Bay Area. I was attracted to UC Davis because of its inclusive spirit and diverse community. California’s demographics are changing rapidly and one of my goals is making sure our student body, faculty and staff mirror the state’s demographics and population.

Let me shift gears and talk about why I think diversity is important in STEM, for both academia and in business. I believe deeply that we need to prepare students for a workforce that’s increasingly diverse and increasingly global. Businesses, laboratories, universities are going to need to fill the shoes of the current workforce. And there’s a competitive need to sustain U.S. global leadership in innovation. “Diversity” isn’t just a good buzzword. It’s at the root of innovation and technological advancement. The greater diversity we have in research, the more likely we can make discoveries and solve problems. A wide mix of backgrounds, experiences and ideas are necessary to make that happen efficiently and robustly.

The first airbags in the auto industry almost killed women passengers. Why? Because they were tested on crash-test dummies that had male anatomies, which were larger in stature. We’re finding that some Artificial Intelligence programs used for facial recognition have racial and gender biases. One African-American researcher tested various facial recognition systems while wearing a white mask to hide her features. She found the systems worked better on men’s faces compared to women. She also found they worked better on lighter-toned faces. In fact, she recorded error rates up to 47% for darker skinned women like herself. On a side note, I’d like to add that the researcher here, Joy Buolamwini, was one of my undergraduate students at Georgia Tech.

Here’s a final example that’s a little scary. Another study from Georgia Tech found that people of color are more likely to get hit by a driverless car. Like facial recognition technology, driverless cars may better detect pedestrians with lighter skin than those of us with darker skin pigment.

These are all real practical examples of why diversity, as I said, is not a buzzword. It actually gives better outcomes. If you have diverse design teams involved with some of these examples, I contend and assert that you have better outcomes with the products that are produced.

So, I encourage you all to think broadly about diversity, equity and inclusion. Think of how society benefits when many diverse perspectives work together to find solutions to our problems.

And most importantly, think about leading by example. That might mean listening to diverse perspectives or working to recruit diverse workforce or team. It could also mean using your own gifts to mentor a rising talent. Together, we can empower the next – more diverse – generation of STEM.

Thanks again for having me. I’m happy to take questions.

Full slideshow presentation: 7_20_2020_Gladstone%20Industries%20Presentation.pdf

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