Meet Bellevue College’s New President: Dr. David May

Portrait of Dr. David May
Image Courtesy of Bellevue College

The last of the finalists for Bellevue College’s presidential position to host an open forum is Dr. David May, who hosted his forum on March 15. May was announced as the new president of Bellevue College on March 28 by the Board of Trustees and is set to start his presidential duties on July 1. 

In the personal biography provided by the candidate himself, May describes himself as a Pacific Northwest native who is a seasoned educator and leader, and is “passionate about the role of higher education in producing responsible and engaged citizens and as an engine of social mobility.” With a doctorate degree in political science from Washington State University, May is an expert in Supreme Court politics, and served as the interim President of Eastern Washington University during the pandemic.

Like all the previous candidates, May was asked to prepare a brief talk on the following topic: “Over the course of the past several years, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the college community has become increasingly divided. As president of Bellevue College, what strategies would you employ to mend the campus culture and bring us together as a community?”

May simplified the prompt to what he believes it truly boils down to: “Mending campus culture and finding common ground.” He explains that the ideas of changing the campus culture are not the hard part, but instead, the implementation of these ideas is where the challenge actually lies. May acknowledges that over the course of the pandemic, change has not impacted Bellevue College positively, and he believes we need to be making intentional changes, because “if we don’t manage the changes that are occurring, […] changes will happen without our consent.”

“Intentional change towards desired results” is May’s central philosophy. As the new president of Bellevue College, he believes that he can be an agent of change because of his past experience as the interim president of EWU during the pandemic, which pushed him to implement changes at an accelerated rate. In addition to his experiences, he expresses his dedication to the following pillars of leadership: communication, transparency, accountability and humility. 

He provides the example of his decision to not implement a vaccination requirement for EWU employees before the State of Washington decided to make it mandatory for all public employees. He explains that the reason he made that decision was because there was hesitance in vaccine uptake within the Hispanic and African American student population and that during the whole process he had transparently communicated his reasoning towards the EWU community. 

May acknowledged that he is not the expert in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, but he believes in hiring and empowering the right experts to further the DEI initiatives and that, as president, he can ask legislation for more funding that could be put into these important initiatives.

Humility is the fourth pillar of successful leadership May touched on. May recognized himself as an outsider, and that he doesn’t know Bellevue College and our exact situation. However, he understands that the recent changes brought onto Bellevue College haven’t been within our control, and that he as president would be able to manage change and provide solutions to challenges that may arise. May believes that the solution to many of BC’s problems is not to add on another initiative, but to “prioritize certain initiatives and subtracting some that are less mission-centric.”

There are still challenges to intentional change, and May believes that leadership is essential in managing these changes. The first step in overcoming these challenges is to define where we are, what the commonalities and differences are, where our strengths lie, and where we have to invest in. Only after defining the current state can we define the future state. Finally, the last and most challenging step would be to let go of the present, meaning letting go of the present and accepting the changes and the unknowns that come with the future.

May aims to create a strategic plan that is “real, meaningful, achievable and integrative,” which would include an enrollment management plan, academic master plan, DEI strategic plan and an engagement plan. This strategic plan would update the eLearning plan from 2017 and, in addition to retaining, hire diverse staff members that would engage internally and externally. Other actions May plans to take to create intentional change include: 

  • Budget readjustments where needed
  • The board agenda
  • Creating public and governmental relations and community partnerships
  • Celebrating the positives 

Concluding his speech on the prepared prompt, May commented on how he believes that Bellevue College is not static and has an enormous amount to offer the region, and change can be achieved through “thoughtful, transparent and brave communication followed by concrete action.” Improving communication and culture at all levels would support “diversity, student success, recruitment and retention.”

The Open Forum continued into the next portion, which were questions asked to May. The first question asked by co-moderator, Alicia Keating Poulson, was “how does shared decision-making fit with your leadership style and how will you ensure shared decision-making becomes an institutional practice?”

May shared that he has been in a faculty position longer than an administrator position. Therefore, he understands that every sector of the institute has something valuable to add in the process of decision-making about the future: “The idea of shared governance to me is about a process that invites all of those perspectives to the table, and demands there be an honest exchange of ideas and perspectives.” May elaborates that the honest and brave communication  that is achieved by believing that everyone is coming into discussions with good intentions and a common goal of furthering the college can lead to people finding more common ground. May also emphasized the importance of doing, rather than talking, in regards to shared decision-making.

The second question asked by co-moderator Sara Landers Gardner was in regards to campus culture: “How would you transform our campus culture to create a culture that is welcoming and diverse at all levels, from students, faculty, staff, administrators, and the Board of Trustees?”

May started by saying that this is a goal that must be accomplished together, and that there would need to be a conversation with people about how they want the campus to function. He acknowledged that he is not an expert on diversity and would lean on Dr. Consuelo Grier, who is the Vice President of Diversity here at BC. May believes that his role is to “elevate, support, find funding, find space” to make Grier’s job possible.

Poulson asked, “How have you worked with staff and faculty to improve student access and success? How will you bring about systemic change in our college culture to achieve this?”

May raised the example of working with the EWU Vice President of Student Affairs to create a bridge program because there were a lot of students who were from diverse backgrounds that were “on the margin of success or failure,” and creating a two-week summer bridge program improved outcomes significantly. May believes that recruiting students from diverse backgrounds needs to happen, but he also stressed the importance of supporting student success by doing both of those things is a community-wide effort.

The next question asked by Gardner was “how can and should a community college address anti-blackness?” May believes that this is not only about diversity but about a threat to the culture of the campus, and therefore must be dealt with proactively: “It is something where the president has to stand up and say, Black Lives Matter.”  He shared his experience during his presidency in EWU when he made a statement to “choose a side” when a racial slur was vandalized on a Black student’s front door. He emphasized that confronting anti-blackness must come from the top to set the tone and must be done so immediately. 

The follow-up question asked by Gardner was to share an example of previous work in the area of recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color. May talked about his experience in EWU joining the Southern Regional Education Board and how that gave EWU access to recruiting under-represented, minority candidates with doctorate degrees. May is also a sponsor of a program which created a search advocate position, which involves training in looking for implicit bias in job listings, interview questions, etc. The last example May gave was the nursing program that focused on rural and underserved populations, and how he wanted the cohort to be representative of that demographic, which is why he created a holistic admission process.

When asked about the current situation of relying heavily on adjunct faculty and what we can do to improve the job satisfaction of adjunct faculty, May answered by saying he does not know the exact data of the situation currently, but believes that change would have to come internally in terms of funding.

The following question asked May to share previous experience in the area of environmental and climate justice, and how he would elevate our campus community in those areas.

Some of the examples that May shared are that he created the first presidential advisory board on climate action at EWU, made the Director of Sustainability more visible, and was creating a campus-wide sustainability plan that focused on planting native crops and reducing water used to water agriculture on campus.

Poulson asked, “What do you think about student choice in modality and how do you plan to meet student and faculty needs?” in regards to students wanting both online and in-person classes, yet faculty struggling to provide enough options.

May asserts, “There’s not enough resources available to have a college fully online, and a college fully in person. It’s not sustainable, it’s impossible.” He explained that he believes there are certain demographics, like first-generation college students, who “don’t thrive as well online as they think they’re going to,” that there needs to be action taken to encourage in-person classes, and that Bellevue College will have to find a balance between online and in-person classes that maximizes student success. 

In several nationwide surveys conducted in 2020-2021, 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health problem, and 75% of students reported moderate or severe psychological distress. Based on this information, May was asked, “What will you do to ensure that all students can comfortably access quality mental health and wellness resources?” 

May expresses that it is a moral obligation to address the mental health crisis on college campuses. However, he understands that there are currently budget restraints which limit what we can do with resources on campus, and that there would be future opportunities to do fundraising for these issues. He also explains that he believes that the mental health crisis is exacerbated by the isolation inflicted on all of us from the pandemic, and that there are informal ways to mend the issue so resources like counseling can be used less.

Poulson explains that historically underrepresented students rely on programs like Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English Second Language (ESL). These programs do not make a profit; however, the community benefits hugely from these curriculums. “How would you balance supporting these programs versus profit generation?” she asks. 

“Why are there adult learner programs at Bellevue College? Because it is a community need.” May elaborates by explaining that there are certain programs that would always be unprofitable in terms of money; however, it is something essential to the community and aligns with the college’s mission. He goes further by saying that these programs need to be seen as an investment from the surplus from profitable programs, because Bellevue College is the point of access to higher education for underrepresented students.