‘We were the lucky ones, Dr. May’

‘We were the lucky ones, Dr. May’
As Gary May prepares to become chancellor of UC Davis, Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering says goodbye.

The press release begins like any other: "University of California President Janet Napolitano has selected Georgia Tech Engineering Dean Gary May to be the next chancellor of the University of California, Davis..."

Nothing unusual; just another announcement about an administrator on the move. After six years at the College of Engineering's helm, May will fly west for a bigger, fancier role at a new university.

But a peek at his Facebook page, which drew hundreds of comments in the days after Georgia Tech published that press release, reveals a more interesting story.

"So sad to see this legend leaving our campus," wrote one person.

"We were the lucky ones, Dr. May," said another. "Thank you and congratulations."  

Then there was this: "I left industry to become a middle school science teacher to increase the pipeline of students that can pursue careers in engineering. You inspired me to do so."

Unlike many deans, Gary May has always been more than his title. He was first a product of the College of Engineering – a 1985 electrical engineering graduate – and later became a symbol of it. His legacy at CoE is evident not only through the College’s rankings or programs, but in the friends and admirers he’s won through his career here.

“I love the place,” May says. “I’ll always love the place, no matter where my career takes me.” 

The dean wears navy and gold regalia at commencement, reflecting the official colors of the University of California, Berkeley (where he earned his doctorate).

The Innovation Boom

He’s spent years working to make the place better. May became dean of the College in 2011, following a nationwide search, and he has overseen more than 400 faculty and 13,000 students each year. Before being named dean, he was the Steve W. Chaddick Chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. (His research centers on computer-aided manufacturing of integrated circuits.)

Chaddick himself knows May personally, and he credits him for encouraging more collaboration across majors and research fields at Tech. For example, Chaddick says, his leadership paved the way for the boom in interdisciplinary projects at the Capstone Design Expo – a shift that students themselves wanted.

“Gary is very good at sensing what is going on with students, not just faculty,” Chaddick says.

One of May’s most recent student-centric accomplishments is the creation of NextEng, a collective of Georgia Tech programs that encourage innovation in learning and research. Several of its offerings are programs that May spearheaded during his stint as dean, such as CREATE-X (which promotes entrepreneurship among undergraduates).

When the entrepreneurship theme picked up momentum among students, Chaddick says, May was eager to jump on board.

“Gary was very supportive,” he says. “He was sensitive to what students cared about and found ways to help support these sort of ground-up programs.”

May is particularly proud of CoE’s advancements in innovation over the past few years. When he became dean, he notes, Georgia Tech was still considered a few steps behind many of its peers in the area. Now, the Institute is famous for focusing on societal challenges, pushing hands-on learning, and supporting student startups.

“That was the thing that was not as strong at Georgia Tech,” he says, “and is getting stronger and has potential to be among the very top places in the country.”

One perk of being dean: meeting major leaders in science, technology and politics.

Promoting Diversity at CoE and Beyond

Some of the things May will be remembered for began well before he was ever named dean. He’s a longtime advocate for diversifying engineering, and he understands the importance of getting kids interested early (and keeping them hooked later).

One of his signature initiatives speaks to this need. SURE, or the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering/Science program, gives underrepresented minority and women students the chance to flex their skills in high-level engineering work. Designed to encourage students to pursue graduate education, SURE traces its roots to a program May founded called GT-SUPREEM, which was also the first thing he received a grant for at Georgia Tech.

“That program has a special place in my heart and in my career,” he says.

Alexis Coates, now a student at Georgia Tech, first met the dean at the Summer Engineering Institute (SEI), in which high school students take on major engineering projects. May visited SEI to discuss both Tech and higher education in general.

“Whether it be SEI, SURE, or his many talks and engagements around the country and world,” she says, “Dean May has opened the door to limitless possibilities for me and so many others.”

Reggie DesRoches, the Karen and John Huff Chair of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, points out that May’s advocacy has left a permanent imprint on both CoE and engineering at large.

“Gary has been instrumental in promoting diversity in STEM fields at Georgia Tech and throughout the United States,” he says. “There are thousands of underrepresented students that are working in STEM fields because of the various programs that Gary has developed and supported.”

DesRoches has known May for almost 30 years, and he admires his willingness to share the limelight and commend his coworkers. 

“He is the first to say that he cannot take credit for the success of the CoE, and that the hard work is done by the chairs, associate chairs, faculty, and staff,” DesRoches says. “However, it is his vision and leadership that has inspired us towards that success.”

There are a few things left undone. When May took office as dean, he said he wanted to vault CoE to the rankings “medal stand,” as he calls it – one of the top three engineering schools as judged by U.S. News & World Report. That placement still eludes the College, but its other strides in U.S. News rankings (and elsewhere) would seem to make up for that.

May leaves CoE with both its graduate and undergraduate programs ranked among the top 10, while all eight schools under the College are also in the top 10 of their kinds.

He’s also mindful of some triumphs that rankings don’t quantify. CoE is, he points out, “simultaneously diverse, large and excellent.” That’s no small feat, and it’s something the College quietly achieves every day. 

A Star Trek fan through and through, May will perhaps be the first UC Davis chancellor to have participated in a cosplay photo shoot.

‘A Pretty Compelling Story’

In many ways, then, he has his work cut out for him at UC Davis, another institution that’s diverse, large and excellent at once. Like Georgia Tech, Davis is ranked among U.S. News’ top 10 public universities, but May knows that it’s not yet a household name across the country.

“Davis is a place that is very strong in many areas,” he says. “I think what I’d like to be able to do there is raise the profile.”

May is not a stranger to the University of California system – he received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Berkeley (which is where he met DesRoches). But he knows how much CoE has shaped him as an engineer, professor and leader.

Deborah Kilpatrick, the chair of CoE’s external advisory board, is grateful for how much he’s shaped the College in turn.  

“Gary May has ensured that the College of Engineering has grown its focus on educating and developing the whole person to create the future leaders in our society,” she says.

May will take over at Davis on Aug. 1. And while he’ll have a loftier title and more responsibilities there, there are a few things Davis can’t match.

“To be the dean of engineering at a place where they sing about engineering in the fight song,” he notes, “is a pretty compelling story.”

Polly Ouellette contributed to this story.