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New UC president Michael Drake takes over

Students walking on the UC Berkeley campus, pre-pandemic times. (Photo: Ioana Catalina E, via Shutterstock)

Michael V. Drake: Welcome back to California.

Drake, a medical doctor, is the new president of the sprawling University of California, one of the world’s premier academic institutions. Drake, 70, is the first African American to hold the position in the university’s 152-year history. He took over this week, replacing the retiring Janet Napolitano.

Drake has his work cut out for him as he leads a system that is more like a small city state than a school, with 10 campuses, 273,000 students, 22,700 faculty members and 154,000 workers.

First challenge: The COVID-19 pandemic. Most classes this fall are being offered remotely, as UC — like other institutions — seeks to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Racial tensions and protests against police misconduct also have simmered at the university.

From 2005 to 2014 he served as the chancellor of UC Irvine.

“We wanted a new president who could both lead UC through these unprecedented times,” says John Pérez, chair of the UC Board of Regents, which voted unanimously in July to hire Drake,  “and who could position the university to expand on its excellence in the years ahead.”

Drake, Pérez added,  “is committed to seeing the whole student and to supporting all our students. He recognizes the incalculable value of faculty and staff to the University’s mission…”

Drake is no stranger to UC.

For the past six years, Drake has been president of Ohio State University, but much of his career has been within the UC.

From 2000 to 2005, he was the system’s vice president for health affairs, and from 2005 to 2014 he served as the chancellor of UC Irvine.

UC’s internal politics are somewhat Byzantine and intriguing, at least to outside observers. But the campus chancellors and provosts wield enormous authority within the system.

During his time at Irvine, Drake saw the university’s acceptance rate increase by more than 90%, the four-year graduation rate by 18%, and a rise in underrepresented minority graduates of about 60%.

Drake’s time at Irvine also saw him through a major controversy, stemming from his hiring — and then abrupt firing — of Erwin Chemerinsky as the law school’s first dean in 2007.

Drake’s UC Irvine tenure also included the school’s upward trajectory on several prominent college-ranking lists, in particular that of U.S. News & World Report, which said UC Irvine was among the top 10 public universities in the country.

Under Drake’s leadership, UCI introduced new programs public health, nursing, and pharmaceutical sciences. These included the UCI School of Medicine’s Program in Medical Education for the Latino Community, an endeavor which “remains the template for medical education programs focused on underserved communities” according to the university. UCI also saw the creation of a new School of Education and a School of Law.

Drake’s time at Irvine also saw him through a major controversy, stemming from his hiring — and then abrupt firing — of Erwin Chemerinsky as the law school’s first dean in 2007.

In September of 2007, Chemerinsky, one of the nation’s most prominent liberal jurists, was set to become the new school’s inaugural dean. But Drake intervened and abruptly vetoed the offer of employment that had been made to Chemerinsky.

Drake said that he found the liberal Chemerinsky’s commentaries too “polarizing,” in large part because of an opinion article the professor had written the previous month concerning death penalty appeals. The move to fire Chemerinsky drew fierce criticism, with a Los Angeles Times report noting that the firing prompted “criticism from liberal and conservative scholars who said Chemerinsky was being unfairly penalized.”

At Ohio State University, Drake also dealt with scandals on multiple occasions.

Some questioned whether Drake had made the decision on his own, or succumbed to outside influence.

As a later L.A. Times article relates, there was a proposal presented to UC Irvine’s Academic Senate to look into “whether Drake caved in to pressure from political conservatives when he decided…to drop Chemerinsky.”

Drake denied this claim, declaring that the concerns over appointing Chemerinsky were his own, and “no one called me and said I should do anything”.L

But less than two weeks later, Drake changed his mind and Chemerinsky was reinstated as dean.

More than a decade later, however, there does not appear to be fallout lingering from the Drake-Chemerinsky episode. Current UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman said following the announcement of Drake’s hiring as UC president, that UC “could not have made a finer choice than Michael Drake.”

At Ohio State University, Drake also dealt with scandals on multiple occasions, first with an investigation into the university’s marching band that was reported to have a “serious cultural issues and an environment conducive to sexual harassment within the Marching Band.”

“We followed our principles and our values, which I would always do.” — Michael Drake

This investigation prompted the firing of the band’s director, who in turn sued the school for reinstatement.

During Drake’s term at OSU, a different investigation found that an OSU physician had sexually abused 177 students during the 1970s and 90s, and that the “university employees repeatedly failed to act.”

A third investigation in 2018 highlighted the handling of domestic violence allegations within the OSU football staff.

When asked about these controversies, Drake said that “we followed our principles and our values, which I would always do.”

Drake has also held an eclectic array of board positions, from the National Collegiate Athletic Association to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Napolitano had been in the position since 2013, after serving as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Drake is succeeded at OSU by Kristina M. Johnson, PhD, who previously served as the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY).

The choice to appoint Drake comes after a months-long, national search for a new president since the announcement last year that now former Napolitano would be retiring.

Napolitano had been in the position since 2013, after serving as the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona, was the first woman to be named president of the UC system.

As Drake steps in, UC is confronting a challenging period.

The 2019-2020 school year was characterized first by a wave of student frustration. In November of last year, a wildcat strike organized by graduate students at UC Santa Cruz demanding a cost of living adjustment for student workers led to labor actions at the Davis, Santa Barbara, and Berkeley campuses.

Napolitano refused to negotiate with the strikers, saying the strike went against their agreement with the UAW, the union that typically represents the student workers. After strikers in Santa Cruz refused to turn in their grades to the university for several weeks, the University terminated 82 striking teaching assistants on Feb. 28.

WIthin weeks, the stay-at-home order was enacted in place for California, as the COVID-19 pandemic became more dire. As a result,  the entirety of the Spring and Summer terms for the university were conducted online.

The pandemic has cost UC about $1.2 billion during March and April, reflecting increased costs and dwindling revenues. An early budget agreement between the governor and lawmakers included another $1 billion in cuts.


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