Chancellor May speaks about Martin Luther King Jr.

The Value of Diversity

Keynote speech celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Woodland Public Library.  (Remarks as delivered/edited for clarity) News coverage.


It’s really great to be here with you on this special day. A couple things come to mind about the day. Actually, it was about a year ago today that I was speaking at an MLK event in San Francisco and on the side, I was actually interviewed for my current position as UC Davis chancellor. So, a little bit of nostalgia and an interesting juxtaposition of this holiday weekend and my career.

The other thing that is noteworthy is that this is 2018, and it was 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. So, it’s the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’m really honored to be here with you as the keynote speaker for this wonderful commemoration of the legacy of one of my heroes—and I’m sure one of your heroes—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Another reason why this is a special treat for me is because Dr. King’s first son, Marty, or Martin III, was actually a neighbor of ours in Atlanta. We were in the same subdivision for about 15 years. We got to know Marty, as we call him, and the family fairly well. So, it’s really special to be able to participate in an event that honors his dad and to be standing next to a picture of him, which is really humbling for me.

I applaud the city of Woodland for making this an annual event. It really speaks to your values as an inclusive community and to the diversity of Woodland and the broader Sacramento region.

You might know this, but it turns out that the Sacramento region is one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitan regions in the United States. So, that’s really something I think to be proud of.

From desegregation to diversity

It’s kind of funny, this term “diversity” that we use so often now. It was not really even in the vocabulary during the civil rights movement in the 60’s when Dr. King was leading the way—and I will talk about an inspiring exception to that in just a second.

The word really back then was “integration” or “desegregation.” That was the dream of Dr. King and his supporters and, frankly, a nightmare for some others. We were still mostly segregated in our society—at home, at work, at play. 

If Dr. King were alive today, I think he would be speaking or preaching to our post-legal segregation society about the value of diversity.  That’s what I would like to talk about this year, which, as I said, marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination.

At times, it seems that we don't need to talk about diversity. America has come such a long way toward racial harmony and equality since that dark day, April 4th, 1968, when the assassination happened and Dr. King was killed by that bullet.

I always remember that date because one of my favorite groups is U2, and they sang the song “Pride.” One of the lyrics is, “Early morning, April four/Shot rings out in the Memphis sky,” and they talk about Dr. King’s assassination. Actually, it wasn’t the morning. It was the evening. But, we'll give them a little bit of slack since they are from Ireland. (Audience member interjects: “It was evening in Ireland.”)

Despite the progress that we’ve achieved, we keep getting these nasty reminders of some of those bad old days when hate and violence really weren’t that far away from us —and are not that far behind us.

Some of those reminders, unfortunately, come from the White House these days. We all saw what unfolded in Charlottesville and in my own hometown, St. Louis, last year. No community is immune from racial tensions. Unfortunately, not even UC Davis, with all of our charm and culture of diversity that I’m quite proud of—as well as inclusion and civil discourse that we like to talk about at UC Davis.

It was only two months ago that our students awoke to find some anonymous fliers that had been posted around our campus that read, “It’s OK to be white.” These posters and flyers appeared at several other college campuses around the country. They were part of a national campaign of what I’d call “racial provocation.” It was intended to divide the country. So, no, we are not quite post-racial yet. Race, unfortunately, still matters. So, I think Dr. King would not be satisfied today.

‘Dissatisfaction can be divine’

But that’s not all bad. Don’t lose heart. He preached that dissatisfaction can be a good thing—if we act on it. In fact, he said, “Dissatisfaction can be divine.”

I’m referring to a speech he gave during the summer of 1967 at the 11th annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, which he led. That’s his birthplace and the place that I called home for much of my life.

To put that speech in historical context, I’ll point out that when it was given, it was four years after Dr. King delivered his electrifying and memorable “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was three years after the President had signed into law the Civil Rights Act. It was two years after passage of the Voting Rights Act. And it was two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that interracial marriage was constitutional—it was allowable.

So, by 1967, many of Dr. King’s followers and his supporters were asking, “Where do we go from here? We’ve accomplished all this stuff.” He answered that question in the Atlanta speech that I referred to with a stirring call to move forward with what he called “divine dissatisfaction.”

Two lines in that address deeply resonated with me as both a lifelong educator and as an African American whose parents actually endured segregation, that was only one generation prior to this one.

Dr. King said, “Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.”

My Mom was among the very first African Americans to integrate the University of Missouri. When that happened, she got called names and she had some pretty unpleasant experiences. But, she persevered and she went on to graduate with a degree in education so she could practice her profession and have a career that she was passionate about. She wanted to be a teacher. She was a teacher for about forty years or more.

She moved forward with this “divine satisfaction,” as did my dad who did everything he could to make sure my sister and I had a really good education. As an example, in grade school he would give me a dollar for every “A” that I earned. We earned straight A’s, so this was a pretty big deal back then. I bought a lot of comic books with a few dollars. They were six for a dollar, as I recall.

I believe education is the key to a successful and a productive life and that it should be accessible to everyone. The roots of that belief and that value for education in my life runs about four generations deep in my family. My great-great grandfather—his name was Theodore May—he had instilled in his nine sons a very strong work ethic and a strong belief in the power of education, even though his sons were not able to be formally educated at the time.

Now, he was formally educated because Theodore was a British indentured servant who came to the U.S. to work off his debt. He originally married my great-great grandmother, a woman by the name of Minerva Cavendish. She was a former slave. That was pretty radical back then. We had a white British guy marrying a former African slave. We Mays were always trendsetters.

My passion for diversity

Back to Dr. King, I told you I have two favorite lines in that 1967 speech. In the second line, which comes right after the first one that I gave you, he said, “Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem, but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity.”

See how he spun integration as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity? It’s one of the earlier uses of this term “diversity”—so optimistic and so prophetic at the time.

That quote speaks to another chapter in my family history—mine actually—when I was dean of engineering at Georgia Tech and today as chancellor of UC Davis—two of the very best and most diverse public universities in the country.

I’m passionate about diversity because I know personally what it feels like to be underrepresented. As a student, I was always troubled by the fact that I was often the only person of color in the classroom or laboratory as I was having my education. At Georgia Tech, I was the first African American to serve as chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. I was the first African American dean of the College of Engineering, and I’m the first African American chancellor at UC Davis.

I barely missed being the first in the UC system. Mike Drake was the first, at UC Irvine. He was a few years ahead of me. I’m competitive. Mike is from Sacramento by the way. He is now the president of Ohio State.

If you look at the national demographics of B.S. degrees, master's degrees and Ph.D. degrees in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)—engineering in particular—you see that women and minorities are abysmally underrepresented. African Americans, as an example, are about 11 to 12 percent of the U.S. population, yet we (African Americans) get only about 4 to 5 percent of the engineering degrees at the bachelor’s level, about 2 percent of the master’s degrees and about 1.3 percent of the Ph.Ds. 

In fact, when I got my Ph.D. in engineering from Berkeley in 1991, I was one of only 31 African Americans who had done so that year—in the whole United States! So, the 31 of us, we all kind of keep in touch. We know each other. It’s a small club, so it’s easy to stay in contact.

I’ve worked hard throughout my career to change that. I developed and led programs to attract, mentor and attain women and minorities in STEM fields. When I left Georgia Tech, it was the largest producer of women and underrepresented minority engineers in the United States. I had a role in achieving that. I had help from many other people, but I’m very proud of that accomplishment.

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, as you all know. But as the late Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef once said, “The pursuit of diversity is part and parcel of the pursuit of academic excellence.” That value spoke to me when I thought about where I wanted to be next.

When I speak of diversity, I’m talking about more than differences in ethnicity and skin color. I’m talking about the full rainbow of nationalities as well as the full spectrum of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds—along with the wide variety of political views and gender identities, and a rich diversity of talents and skills.

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.

One of the strengths of Davis is the diversity of our student body, our faculty and our staff. We are highly ranked for how we help students with upward social mobility.

About 44 percent of the undergraduates who enrolled last fall are in the first generation of their families to seek college degrees. African American, American Indian and Chicano/Latino students at Davis represented 26 percent of those incoming freshmen and transfer students.  

Let me stop there because I think that is a record. That’s the most diverse class of newcomers in the history of UC Davis. So, I’ll take credit for that even though I’m one of the newcomers. I said I was competitive.

So, with that class we now meet the numeric threshold for becoming a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution. The reason why that’s important is because when you get to 25 percent of Chicano/Latino enrollment in your undergraduate population, you become eligible for some federal funding, which we hope to use to help those students become successful and achieve what they would like to achieve at UC Davis.

I know many of you will agree that we can do better. I think we can. My goal is to be an accelerator of diversity, such that our university community reflects the demographic makeup of California. That’s really our mission and our responsibility as a state institution and as a public institution. Students of all backgrounds must have equal access to the quality education and opportunities that we offer at the University of California.

Why diversity matters

It’s important to me that people understand why I champion diversity. It’s not only for the sake of social equity, which is important, or because it’s the right thing to do, which it is. I actually promote diversity because it gives our society better outcomes. I’ll give a few examples of that from the STEM perspective.

The first airbags in the auto industry almost killed female passengers because they had been tested only on male crash dummies. So, when they deployed during accidents, women would often be hit in the head, which could have snapped their neck or caused burns or other injuries. That was a result of not having women on the design team.

Similarly, the first voice activated devices—remember the Speak & Spell (child computers) made by Texas Instruments back in the 80’s and 70’s?—those devices didn’t respond to a girl’s voice because there were no women on the design team.

One more example, which is still relevant even today: In some public restrooms, in the airport or restaurants or many places, if I put my hands under an automated faucet with my palms down like this, I don’t get water or soap. But, if I put my hands palms up, I do, because the sensor is not properly calibrated for the pigment of my skin.

So, again, diversity, as a practical matter, leads to better outcomes. If there were diverse engineers on those design teams, they may not have overlooked those particular glitches.

The point is that diversity is not just a buzzword. It’s not window dressing or about political correctness. It’s one of the great strengths of our society. It’s integral to our success. Diversity acknowledges the fact that no matter what we look like, dress like, talk like, think like, we are all interconnected with one another.

Dr. King voiced this holistic vision during the last year of his life. On Christmas Eve in 1967, he stood in the pulpit of the Ebenezer Church in Atlanta and told the congregation that in order to achieve peace on Earth, we must develop a world perspective—a viewpoint that acknowledged our interconnectedness.

He said, “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all of us directly. We are all made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

And, actually, physicists verified this when the new photon was discovered recently and noted that we actually are interconnected. I won’t go into the physics of it, but there is something loosely connected to and analogous to “the force” (light sabers) if you like Star Wars.


Take action

So, I challenge myself and everyone here to not only acknowledge our mutuality, but to embrace it, to celebrate it and to act on it. We all have a role to play to make that happen.

As employers, we can reach out to, recruit, and retain people with backgrounds that are underrepresented in our line of work.

As neighbors and colleagues, we can widen our social circles to include those whose ethnic heritage and life experiences are much different than our own.

And as parents and teachers, we can take children to festivals, powwows, parades, exhibits and performances—and speeches by chancellors, apparently—that celebrate cultures and ethnicities that they have yet to experience.

Building diversity and a sense of community are still works in progress. But, in the spirit of Dr. King, let us be dissatisfied until the value of diversity is no longer the subject of HR workshops, businesses conferences and, yes, speeches like this one.

Our journey of dissatisfaction will be simply divine.

So, let me close with my favorite King quote, and that’s this one: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice...We will get there, and we will get there together.”

Thank you. God bless you.                                                 


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