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May replaces Linda Katehi, who resigned last year after a UC investigation into allegations of conflicts of interest found that she violated multiple university policies and misled her superiors, the public and the media.
UC President Janet Napolitano told regents that May is dynamic and accomplished — with an out-of-this world quality: He's a Trekkie who wrote that his leadership style is inspired by "Star Trek" Commander James T. Kirk's ability to be both decisive and collaborative in leading his crew "to go where no one has gone before."
"Gary May is the right person to lead UC Davis into the next galaxy," Napolitano said at the meeting at UCLA.
In remarks after the vote, May said he was excited by UC Davis' focus on sustainability, diversity, upward mobility and social good.
"These are all concepts and attributes that really spoke to my own spirit," he said.
May, who was selected from an initial pool of more than 500 potential candidates, offers the campus of 35,000 students outside Sacramento a fresh start after the long-running Katehi turmoil. Search committee members said May's warm personality and ability to connect with people would help the community move forward.
"We've had some rough times in the last year, and many people on campus will look very much forward to seeing Gary May move to campus," said Rachael Goodhue, a search committee member and chair of the agricultural and resource economics department.
May, 52, is a St. Louis native and son of a postal clerk and public school teacher who always emphasized education — his father gave him $1 for each A, he said.
His early interest in science, technology, engineering and math was sparked by "Star Trek," Lego and Erector sets, comic books and science fiction. He received his bachelor's in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech in 1985 and his master's and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley in 1988 and 1991, respectively.
He often found, however, that he was one of just a handful of African Americans in his college STEM classes.
"It was very jarring to me," he said in remarks after the meeting. "I always wondered why that was true. As time went on, I became interested in what I could do to make a difference there and to increase the number."
May, who has spent three decades at Georgia Tech, leads more than 400 faculty members and 13,000 students in that university's College of Engineering — which graduates more engineers than any other college in the United States.
He has paid special attention to boosting the number of underrepresented minorities in the STEM fields. With National Science Foundation grants, May created research programs that increased the number of underrepresented minorities pursuing masters and doctorates in science and engineering. The efforts prompted President Obama to award May the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2015.
Those diversity efforts were a key attraction for UC, as more than 40% of its students today are low income and the first in their families to attend college.
May will take the helm on Aug. 1 from interim Chancellor Ralph Hexter.
The new chancellor will earn a base salary of $420,000 — $4,000 less than Katehi's current pay — and another $75,000 annually from a privately funded endowed chair.
May is married to LeShelle R. May, a CNN senior manager of software development whom he met while both tutored inner-city high school students in Atlanta. They have two daughters, Simone and Jordan.