Professor emeritus of French Georges May, a former University provost and dean of Yale College, died Feb. 28 from a heart condition. He was 82.
Known at Yale for his warmth, rationality and scholarship, May served as dean of Yale College from 1963 to 1971, chairman of the French Department from 1978 to 1979, and University provost from 1979 to 1981. During his years at Yale, May was a strong advocate of coeducation and served as a voice of reason during the student protests of the 1960s.
Born in Paris in 1920, May first came to Yale in 1946 after serving in both the French and American armies. French Department chairman Edwin Duval said May’s unusual transition to America was one of the former provost’s many accomplishments.
“When France was invaded, he moved south and studied in Montpelier, then he made his way to the U.S.,” Duval said. “He was one of those rare figures who served in two armies [during World War Two].”
After joining the Yale faculty, May quickly became known as an expert in his field. By the late 1950s, when professor emeritus of French Charles Porter arrived at Yale as a graduate student, May was already internationally renowned for his scholarship in 17th- and 18th-century French literature.
“His own writings and those of a number of his students have transformed French literature,” Porter said. “His students really established the study of French women writers before the 19th century.”
May was appointed to serve as Dean of Yale College during the tumultuous 1960s, when student protests against the Vietnam War were common across the nation. Porter said May was not easily classified as a liberal or a conservative, as he preferred to let reason prevail within the faculty and student body.
“He was very much one of the 18th-century rationalists he studied,” Porter said. “He was looked up to for his ability to lead the Yale College faculty as much as for his scholarly work.”
As dean, May was a staunch supporter of coeducation and opposed quotas limiting the number of women who could enroll at Yale. Current Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, who was an undergraduate when May was Dean, praised May’s work in pressing for the admission of women to Yale College.
“That was a time of many changes,” Brodhead said. “He really saw the change to a much more democratic Yale.”
Yale Provost Susan Hockfield said May did a remarkable job as provost from 1979 to 1981, steering the University through tough economic times.
“He claimed when [former Yale President] Bartlett Giamatti asked him to step in as provost, he was, I gather, somewhat surprised and reticent,” Hockfield said. “But he did a brilliant job.”
After serving a brief term as chairman of the French Department, May continued to work diligently as a French professor, publishing a compilation of correspondences between philosopher Jacques Rousseau and Madame de la Tour in 1998, long after his retirement in 1992. Many faculty members, including Jacques Guicharnaud, professor emeritus of French, attributed much of their success to May’s mentorship.
“He really taught me what it was to be a professor in this country, and he was always very helpful to me and his students,” Guicharnaud said.
Yale President Richard Levin, who was a neighbor of May’s, also lauded the French professor’s work.
“Georges May was a person of extraordinary grace and charm,” Levin said. “He was well loved by the faculty and always had their interests at heart. He led with a light touch and yet very effectively.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this story