When Gary May was an electrical engineering undergraduate at Tech in the 1980s, he had little understanding of “academic hierarchy” until he met Bill Sangster, then the College of Engineering’s dean.
In talking to Sangster, May became interested in the dean’s role.
“As I learned more and more, it dawned on me that at a place like Georgia Tech where engineering is so critical — where we sing about it in the fight song — that leading the engineering effort would be cool,” May said. “I kind of filed that away and didn’t think about that until later. As I became an administrator, it seemed like more of a reachable aspiration.”
Now, more than two decades later, May’s aspiration has become a reality. On July 1, he became dean of the College of Engineering. May replaced Don Giddens, AE 63, MS AE 65, PhD AE 66, who served as dean from 2002 until his retirement earlier this year. May will oversee the nation’s largest engineering program, which enrolls almost 60 percent of Tech’s student body and is home to almost half of its tenured and tenure-track faculty.
May, previously a professor and chair of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has described the position as a dream job. Giddens told May it’s the best job in the world.
“It’s exciting to be able to follow in the footsteps of someone who’s done so much for Georgia Tech for so long,” May said of Giddens. “There is some pressure. We’ve been ranked in the top four, and part of my platform has been, ‘Let’s get Georgia Tech on the medal stand.’ Part of me is really excited about that challenge. Part of me is really worried about screwing it up.”
May grew up in St. Louis, where he participated in a McDonnell Douglas-sponsored program to develop engineering interest in high school students. Georgia Tech was recommended as a college, and May had family and friends in Atlanta.
“All of those things fit together, and I wanted to get away from home, and Atlanta was a great city,” he said. “Tech was a great school, that goes without saying.”
At Tech, May said he had a terrific experience, one where the academics were rigorous but the environment was supportive. He took part in co-op, the National Society of Black Engineers and ANAK. May graduated from the Institute with an electrical engineering degree in 1985. He then received master’s and PhD degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley.
“I came directly back to Tech immediately after my PhD and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
While embarking on his career on the Tech faculty, May also became actively involved with the Alumni Association. He has served on the Alumni Association Board of Trustees, was named Outstanding Young Alumnus in 1993 and is a member of the Georgia Tech Black Alumni Organization.
An added component to May’s appointment is that it made him the first African-American dean in the college’s history.
“I’m certainly very proud of that,” he said. “It means a lot not just to me personally but to the Georgia Tech community and the broader community. It’s been viewed very positively by those involved in diversity efforts in engineering and science. I can’t tell you how many congratulatory emails and calls and letters I’ve received from people who really have nothing to do with Georgia Tech.
“I will say while it’s a nice part of getting the job, I believe I got the job because I was the best candidate. I don’t think there was any kind of agenda to be politically correct.”
Provost Rafael Bras, who spearheaded the international search for a new dean, said May is exactly who is needed to lead the College of Engineering going forward.
“Gary exemplifies the type of leadership qualities we hope to instill in each of our students,” Bras said. “As a faculty member, administrator and representative of Georgia Tech, his impact on his profession and on this institution has been profound.”
May has been closely involved in shaping the undergraduate learning experience in his time at Tech, and he said he plans to continue focusing on that even as his attention is called to ever-larger matters.
“I like to think of learning as a holistic experience,” he said. “Part of it is discovery. Part of it is the transfer of ideas. We want to get undergrads more involved in research, experience, to tie the two together.”
When it comes to research, May described his role as being an enabler: The College of Engineering is peopled with smart, driven individuals, and his job is to provide resources such as funding and space.
Resources are the top challenge for Tech going forward, he said. As the state contributes less and less to the Institute, Tech’s leaders have to find ways to make up for that.
While May’s goal is to see Tech ranked among the top three engineering programs, the college can’t ignore the universities below it in the rankings which compete for the same talent. “How can we make Georgia Tech the preferred location for outstanding faculty, for great students who want to be leaders?” he asked.
As part of the Institute’s Strategic Plan, May said he’s excited to continue to develop the idea of “What does Georgia Tech think?” The goal, he said, is to establish Tech as the source for creative solutions to the world’s grand challenges.
“Philosophically, what I think is, rather than waiting for the problems to present themselves, we should be proactive,” May said. “We should be thinking creatively about what’s the next issue that’s going to require engineering and technology solutions, so we can get in front of it.”
Engaging with Tech alumni also is a crucial part of the dean’s role, May said. He wants to communicate with graduates to let them know both how they can help Tech and how Tech can help them. And what does Tech need?
“I can give you the old church mantra of ‘Your time, your talent and your tribute,’” he said. “As Georgia Tech’s profile becomes more prominent, we all benefit.”
Outside of work, May said he likes to spend time exercising and reading — mostly science fiction and fantasy novels. He and his wife, LeShelle, MS OR 89, a former Alumni Association Executive Committee member, keep busy parenting.
“I’m raising two teenage girls, which is a challenge,” he said with a smile.
As for that other big challenge on May’s plate — presiding over the nation’s largest engineering program — he’s excited to start.
“I’m very grateful for this opportunity and really looking forward to the challenge of maintaining and enhancing the profile of the College of Engineering,” May said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge, and I think I’m up to it.”