Inside the President’s Office: Get to Know David May

Starting a new job during a pandemic is not exactly ideal. But Eastern Washington University’s new interim president, David May, is eager to face the challenges ahead to ensure EWU remains Eagle Strong.

While May makes plans for this unprecedented academic year, he has the benefit of experience on his side. May joined Eastern’s political science faculty in 1999, and over the years has worked in a number of administrative positions. Most recently he served as provost and vice president for academic affairs, where he spearheaded the university’s shift to online classes at the beginning of the pandemic.

Though May is no stranger to campus, there is always room to get to know someone a little better. InsideEWU sat down with the interim president to learn more about his background, some of his likes and dislikes, and his hopes for the coming year.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Hood River, Oregon, where my dad was a science teacher. When he decided to go to Michigan State University to get his master’s and a PhD we moved to East Lansing. A couple of additional sisters came along, and then we moved to Athens, Georgia where my dad taught at the University of Georgia for a few years. Then he took a job at Whitman College in Walla Walla where he taught for 18 years.

We moved to Walla Walla in the middle of my fifth-grade year, which was not at all an awkward time to move. I got no grace for my Southern accent and saying “y’all” a lot.

What was your favorite subject in school?

My favorite classes were physics and chemistry. And I loved geometry. I’m a very spatial person, and so figuring things out in geometry, physics and chemistry was really fun. I also really enjoyed language classes. I took a lot of Spanish in high school and college. I’ve forgotten most of it unfortunately.

What was your least favorite subject in school?

I think Br. Bernard has passed on, so I’ll say Latin. It was a class I loved and hated. And math was always a struggle for me, which makes me wonder why I was going to be an engineer.

You wanted to become an engineer, what happened?

Calculus 3 happened [laughter] and I wasn’t going to be an engineer anymore!

At what point did you decide to become a professor?

Very late! I grew up in farming and ranching, and sort of transitioned into construction work. I went to Whitman College because it was in Walla Walla and my dad was teaching there, but I was not prepared to do it. That kind of led to a crisis of faith inside of me. I said the heck with education, I’m going to go to work. So, like a lot of our students, I took a little extra time—the non-traditional path. I made some mistakes and I learned from them. But I think it gives me some empathy and insight into the struggles that happen all around us at Eastern every day.

I figured out I wanted to go to grad school when I looked at the people I was working with and realized I wanted to be able to walk upright by the time I was 40. It [construction] was grueling work. So, I went back to grad school without a real clear vision of my future, but it was there I really rediscovered how much I enjoyed learning. Along the way, what I call the “ah ha!” moments got fewer and fewer. That’s when I knew I was an “ah ha” junkie, and if I wasn’t going to get the “ah ha” moments any more, I was going to give them to other people.

Are those “ah ha!” moments your favorite part about teaching?

Absolutely. There’s a moment in the classroom where you’re talking about something and you can almost literally see the lightbulb go on and you can see the student go, “ohhh… got it!” It is such a privilege to be a part of that moment in somebody else’s life.

Why did you choose to teach at Eastern?

A job listing that my friend sent me sort of just dropped out of the sky. I came out here and interviewed for it, but they had already decided who they were going to hire. It wasn’t me. But, apparently, I impressed them because they offered me a different job. So I feel less like I chose Eastern, and more like Eastern chose me. It was almost like it was fated to be.

I’m starting my 22nd academic year at Eastern. I toyed briefly with moving to another university, but I turned it down because Eastern very quickly became something very important to me. We talk a lot about transforming lives. The privilege of being in the classroom is that you see that transformation. It’s so much fun when you’re in that moment and the students are fully engaged. It’s just magical to watch and be part of.

Is there a story of how you and your wife met?

I met Monica the day I moved into Jewett Hall on the Whitman campus because she was dating my roommate. They parted ways, and we joined ways. We’ve actually been together since the spring of 1986. We got married in 1994. We have one daughter, Emily, who goes to Western Washington University. Currently going to Western in my dining room.

Let me guess, your daughter didn’t want to go to college where her dad works?

It is weird going to school where your dad works, I know from experience. I pledged a fraternity and moved into a fraternity house. One morning I woke up to my dad sitting on the edge of my bed saying, “So I ran into Professor Bright in the hallway today and he said you haven’t been in class for the last three days.” Ok, that is not weird at all! So yeah, that was part of it. Although Emily is really interested in our OT program when she finishes her undergrad, so she may end up being an Eagle before we’re done. We’re working on it.

Which best describes you as a parent?

  • A. I am the master of dad jokes
  • B. I give pop-quizzes during breakfast
  • C. I live to embarrass my daughter

I have to go with C. I’m a goofball. We have a lot of fun together. For better or worse she inherited my sense of irony and playfulness and goofiness. I don’t know who embarrasses who more anymore.

When you’re not at Eastern, what are you most likely up to?

It is weather dependent. My facial hair is coming back right now because I ski a lot in the winter. I’m planning to do a lot of backcountry skiing this year, a lot of hiking up mountains because I don’t think I’m going to be getting on a ski chair with other people quite yet. In the summer the facial hair comes off because I need to be aerodynamic on my bicycle. I don’t know if food counts as a hobby, but I love to cook and I love to eat. Food is an important part of my life.

Which philosophy best describes your diet style?

  • A. You are what you eat
  • B. Life is short, eat the cake
  • C. I eat well during the week, but weekend calories don’t count, right?

I’m closest to C but I don’t really eat well, that’s the problem. I too often skip breakfast. I’ll shove a granola bar in my face when I have low blood sugar at 11 o’clock. And then I forget lunch and go home and have a nice dinner. On the weekends, yeah, I tend to eat things I shouldn’t. But I’m not a sweets guy, I don’t do desserts. I’m really lucky that way.

What items remain on your bucket list?

I have had the opportunity to be on five of the seven continents. I want to be on all seven. We haven’t made it to Australia and we haven’t made it to Antarctica. My daughter has also been on five of the seven continents, and food is a huge part it for us. We get off a plane in Thailand and say, “Let’s go find some street food.” It’s so much fun. The other thing is helicopter skiing. I’ve been cat-skiing and I’ve done a lot of hiking in the backcountry, but I’ve never been heli-skiing. So that’s on the bucket list. But it’s like flying first class though, I can’t justify it: You want how much money to fly me around in a helicopter?

Besides EWU, do you have a favorite sports team?

I’m going to have a favorite sports team soon. Because the expansion NHL team in Seattle, the Kraken is going to be my sports team. I grew up in Walla Walla. How I got interested in hockey is one of the great mysteries of life. I follow the Spokane Chiefs. And I definitely support our local teams. My wife went to UW med school and I went to grad school at WSU, so we have some really good Apple Cup memories.

What would you like to say to Eastern students as they start the 2020-21 year?

The challenges at this moment are real. The challenges of learning online are real; the challenges of teaching online are real. We have to remember that we’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to provide the best education, and to get the best education that we can in this moment. We all wish it could be different. We all want to come back to campus. We all want to be in those classrooms. We all want those things that we remember so fondly. We’ll get there, but the better we can do today, the sooner we’ll get there. We also have to continue to give each other as much grace as possible. We’re all in a pressure cooker together. If we recognize that we’re all in it together, then I think we will be ok. It’s about a commitment to being Eagle Strong.

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