A Legacy of Inclusion and Empowerment

By Laura Pizzo 

Professor Emeritus Melvin “Mel” Ramey’s eyes welled up with tears when he found out his colleagues, friends and former students had established a student-support fund in his name and that the lobby of the Student Community Center would be named after him.

“It meant so much to me because I have seen faculty who have devoted all their energy, spirit and knowledge to the university, and then six weeks after they retire, it’s like they were never here,” said Ramey, who taught civil engineering at UC Davis for 37 years until retiring in 2004. “Now, people will always know I was here. That’s a huge deal.”

The Melvin R. Ramey Fund for Student Success is an endowment fund that will support student services housed in the Student Community Center. This support will include funding student leaders in the student retention and success centers of the university, providing training and support for peer advisors and outreach coordinators and for students who serve as dynamic leaders in their respective communities.

“I have been here at UC Davis for three and a half years, and I have been hearing Mel Ramey’s name the whole time all across this campus,” said Milton Lang, associate vice chancellor for student life, campus community and retention services. “We were so fortunate to have someone with his commitment to equity, inclusion and the student experience. I just want to say thank you to Mel for his contributions and for allowing us to honor him in this way that will continue to empower our students as they become extraordinary contributors to society.”

Change agent

Ramey took on a variety of roles during his tenure at the university, and his deep commitment to student success led to many faculty and staff considering him the creator of student affairs programming at UC Davis. In addition to mentoring students as a professor and assistant track coach, Ramey served as a civil and environmental engineering department chair, an associate dean of Graduate Studies, and—being the second African American faculty member—the Academic Senate’s educational opportunity program (EOP) chair and the first faculty advisor to the program.

EOP has served thousands of students in the nearly 50 years since it was established. Today, the EOP continues to strive to improve the access, retention and graduation of students who have been historically disadvantaged, either socially or economically. But when the program first began, Ramey and his team were given an allotment of 200 students in June—only three short months before the start of fall semester. In order to reach their admissions goal, they had to get creative.

“We would recruit students who were working in the fields. We also put fliers at barbershops and churches. The university would then allow us to admit them, and we did,” Ramey explained. “And when I went to the Academic Senate meeting when grades came out the first term, the Senate said, ‘Look at these grades, about half these students are not performing up to University of California standards.’ And I’d say, ‘You’re looking at it wrong. Half of them are! And this is the least likely group to succeed.’”

With a knack for pushing students to work hard and believe in themselves, Ramey also has a long affiliation with UC Davis athletics. He served as an assistant track coach and faculty athletics representative, and his influence in track and field quickly stretched beyond the UC Davis campus. His standout research in biomechanics and engineering earned him a spot as one of the biomechanists who assists the U.S. Olympic Team in long and triple jump events—a position he still holds to this day. In fact, at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, four of the six medalists were athletes Ramey had worked with on technical aspects of jumping.

“Coach Ramey was the first educated male that did not look at my shortcomings or use my upbringing to define me; he was a teacher, father and coach who cared about students beyond academics and sports, and more importantly, taught us about life,” wrote Byron Patterson, ’90, M.D. ’95 in his letter of support for the lobby dedication. Patterson, a former All-American track star at UC Davis, is the founder and medical director of Primary Care Sports Medicine. He credits Ramey for empowering him both on the track and in academics.

In addition to helping students, Ramey also had a leading role in changing the face of UC Davis. He served as the head of the building committee for Ghausi Hall, which provided a single home for the department of civil and environmental engineering. Previously, the department was spread out across Bainer, Everson Hall and Walker Hall—an arrangement that made collaboration very difficult.

“A lot of faculty want change and move from university to university to get a different view of the world, but I didn’t have to do that because UC Davis was growing and changing in front of me,” he said. “Now, there are new people, new buildings, new opportunities, new curricula and ideas and a much more diverse student body. I loved being in the middle of it, being a change agent, and I couldn’t be prouder of what UC Davis has become.”