“[To] help the institution find a path forward.”
That’s how Dr. David May, in part, describes his job as the President of Bellevue College. He also describes it as being a facilitator of that path. “I’m the person who helps to set a vision for what we want in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “And then I’m the person who helps to make that vision a reality.”
Being the head of a community college in Bellevue was not something May had planned for his whole life. He was born and grew up in Walla Walla, and attended Whitman College, where his dad worked as a professor and where he met his wife. After taking some time off from school, he returned and graduated with a Ph.D. in political science (Poli Sci) from Washington State University.
In 1999, May became an assistant professor at Eastern Washington University. He spent the next 24 years there, eventually becoming president in 2020. He remained in that position for the next three years before transferring to BC.
The reason May chose to enter academic administration, let alone become a school president, was, in his words: “…I responded to what I perceived to be needs.” May was the Political Science department chair for 10 years before he “happily went back to just quietly teaching my classes and being with students.” He was then asked to be, and became, an Associate Dean for four years. After this, he again returned to teaching. Later, he became Eastern Washington’s Provost — meaning he was responsible for the school’s academic affairs — and held this position for the next two years.
After the preceding president left Eastern, May was asked by the Board of Trustees if he could “…do it for two years.” Although concerned because he was taking over right when Covid was at its peak, he agreed. He spent the next two years helping the school through Covid before stepping down and ending up here.
May considers enrollment to be the biggest issue facing BC now, as he did as a candidate. “It’s the issue that confronts me most often,” he said. However, he considers this issue to be more complicated than the number of people enrolled at any one time, considering how often people getting the degree they wanted to be just as important. “It’s not just access,” he said. “It’s about making sure we are transforming the dreams that students bring to us into a reality for them down the road.”
Two other issues May considers serious at BC are equity and the financial situation of the college. He referenced the different degree completion rates for students of different races. He also said solving this ties into enrollment in that the lower enrollment the school has, the fewer resources the school can allocate to solving another issue. May wants to increase outreach efforts to high school students to both increase enrollment and thereby promote the financial stability of BC, and to ensure that those students come from a variety of diverse populations.
Another issue that May views as important is sustainability, which he considers to relate to social justice. He referenced the planting of trees done on campus, as well as a potential new building to be built on campus, the W Building, that will have a larger solar panel carrying capacity than other buildings. He also wants to address plastic water bottles on campus. “I don’t think it will get to the point where we say they are not allowed,” he said, “but I want to shift from plastic to something like what Alaska Airlines does with its paper water boxes.” In reference to social justice, May stated that “…sustainability and climate justice are also social justice,” because of the disproportionate impact of climate change on People of Color.
Despite these issues, May considers the situation at BC to be positive and stable. Although still concerned about enrollment, he said that the number of enrolled students is high, and campus life has come a long way from the way it was during Covid’s peak. He stated, “It’s wonderful to see all the students on campus, and to have people telling me that this is the most lively it’s been since before Covid.” He also referenced the greater ease of dealing with problems than during Covid, saying, “it’s calm in that (when there are problems) we have a plan. … We know what we need to do and how we need to get there.”
Mays’s belief in social justice is one of the pillars of his philosophy, and creating a socially just college campus is one of his foremost goals. To him, that goal will have been achieved if a campus is one where “every member of the community feels welcomed, seen, heard and understood. It is also a place where every student, regardless of background or challenge, has the opportunity to be successful.”
The head of any institution will, of course, want to be considered “good,” both by themselves and others, at their job. May said that whenever he leaves BC, he will have considered himself to have been a successful president if he helped to bring about consistent improvement, stating, “If I could look back and say every year we did better than before…if we lowered equity gaps, if we increased our diversity, if we improved our sustainability…I would be happy with that.”