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Chancellor Gary S. May on diversity in STEM and higher education

This past February saw a month of inspiring programming hosted by UCOP’s Black Staff and Faculty Organization (BSFO). UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May kicked off the month’s celebration with a compelling talk on the importance of diversity in STEM and higher education.

President Janet Napolitano began the Feb. 4 event by emphasizing the importance of diversity throughout the UC system. “Black history is fundamental to American history,” Napolitano said. “The pursuit of diversity is at the core of everything we do at UC.”

Jamal Collins, financial aid outreach and communications liaison at UCOP, then presented BSFO’s $1,000 UC Student Scholarship Award to UC Davis undergraduate student Tayibatu A. Sanni. This scholarship is awarded annually to an exemplary student who participates in UC’s academic preparation programs.

Sanni, whose family is Nigerian, is the first person in her family to attend college. She has overcome extraordinary financial hurdles to attain her degree, including working 36 hours each week while in high school. Her sister paid for her UC applications. Today, Sanni is a research assistant for the Saron Lab at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, and she conducts graduate-level research for the Luck Lab at UC Davis. Her goal is to someday join Doctors Without Borders.

Following the scholarship presentation, Yvette Gullatt, vice provost and chief outreach officer of diversity and engagement and interim vice president of student affairs, introduced Chancellor May.

“I’m honored to be here for your Black History Month celebration,” said May. “I always look forward to this time of reconnecting with my culture, thinking of the progress we’ve made and reflecting on how much work we still need to do.”

May’s career has centered around increasing diversity in higher education. His tireless work on this front was recognized in 2015, when then-President Barack Obama honored him with the Presidential Award for Excellence in STEM Mentoring. As chancellor of UC Davis, he has been instrumental in advancing opportunities for students and faculty members of color.

May’s mother inspired his decision to support and champion people of color within the academic community. She was one of the first African-American students to integrate the University of Missouri during the Jim Crow era. Her experiences taught him the power of determination and the importance of speaking out in the name of social justice. “It seems like that time was long ago, but it really wasn’t,” May said. “That was just one generation removed from our own.”

A continued racial divide was apparent during May’s personal experience as an African-American student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, while he pursued his undergraduate engineering degree. “I’d look around the laboratories and lecture halls and realize that I was usually the only black person in the room. That included fellow students, professors, research partners – you name it. It just didn’t feel right,” he said.

In 1991, when May received his doctorate in engineering from UC Berkeley, he learned that he was one of only 31 African-Americans who had done so in the entire country that year. “It troubled me that so many people were getting left out of higher education, especially in the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields,” May said. “On an academic level, the lack of diversity concerned me as a researcher.  I knew the greater diversity we have in university research, the more likely we can make discoveries and solve problems.  A wide mix of backgrounds, experiences and ideas helps make this happen.”

“We still face sobering numbers,” he continued. “If you look at the national demographics of bachelor, master and doctoral degrees in STEM fields, and in engineering in particular, you see that women and minorities are abysmally underrepresented.”

May’s current initiatives at UC Davis aim to address inequalities by providing additional support for students of color. One resource is the Center for African Diaspora Student Success, which focuses on the retention, persistence and graduation of African and African-American students.

“It’s not enough just to increase the numbers of African-American students on our campus.  As with all our students, we must do everything we can to help them succeed,” he said.

May also touched on his Aggie Square initiative, which is based on Atlanta’s Technology Square, an innovation campus that May helped create while serving as dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. Aggie Square will include an incubator, academic programs, housing, retail, art and music venues and more. May hopes it will foster social equity, inclusive economic growth and a renewed skilled work force in the Sacramento area.

“One of the key attributes that drew me to UC Davis is its strong commitment to diversity in its student body, staff and faculty,” said May. “I wanted to be part of a community that deliberately recruits, retains and embraces people who are underrepresented in higher education; one that honors the promoters of socioeconomic mobility who we celebrate this month.”

“I’m proud of UC Davis, especially our ranking as the fifth best public university in the country,” May said. “But, I have even greater hopes for our university community. I want our students’ world to open up like never before – not only so they’ll be well prepared for the global economy, but for the sake of our humanity.”

Chancellor May was one of many UC leaders who joined BSFO in celebrating Black History Month this year. Other influential UCOP African-American executive leaders who spoke  included Michael Brown, provost and executive vice president; William Cooper, associate vice president and chief procurement officer; Dwaine B. Duckett, vice president, Systemwide Human Resources; Pamela Jennings, executive director, University of California Graduate Studies; Cheryl Lloyd, associate vice president and chief risk officer, Risk Services and Charles Robinson, general counsel and vice president, Legal Affairs.

BSFO hosted several great events this month, including a film series sponsored by the San Francisco Black Film Festival, a presentation from the African-American Genealogy Society of Northern California, an author series and Community in Partnership presentations. BSFO invites all interested employees to join its listserv for upcoming events and announcements. For more information, please contact Latascha Magness-Cotton at

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