A Q&A with Michael V. Drake

The University of California announced its new president, Dr. Michael V. Drake, on Tuesday. Drake, will oversee 10 campuses, five medical centers, three national laboratories and a nearly $40 billion operation.

History was made, as Drake is the first person of color to serve in this role. He replaces the current UC president, Janet Napolitano, who is stepping down after leading for seven years.

Drake is also taking the reins as the 21st president in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic as students and faculty transition to mostly online instruction for the fall. The university system’s 280,000 students and 227,000 employees face a hybrid set of plans for the fall. Most classes at UC Davis have moved online, but several courses are still being taught in-person.

Drake, who spent much of his childhood in Sacramento and graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1967, spoke with The Sacramento Bee just hours after his appointment.

His answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

Congratulations on your appointment. You’re coming to the University of California from Ohio State where you served as president for six years, so leading a university during a pandemic is not new to you. What do you hope to bring this fall to nearly half a million students and faculty trying to manage during this pandemic at the University of California?

The pandemic is a challenge for all of us and I don’t want to understate that. It’s a challenge for our university, a challenge for our state, a challenge for the nation, a challenge for the world. I would say that I am (impressed) by the quality and the focus of our medical scientists in UC Health and of our chancellors. Scientists are focusing on the public health and scientific approach to treating patients with COVID-19 and finding a vaccine and improving therapies for COVID-19. Our chancellors and the campuses are managing through providing educational content and supporting our students in their pathway forward during these times of unprecedented disruption. So I will be another voice at the table. Nobody has gotten to the end of this yet, so we’ll all be doing our best to provide our collective wisdom and move us through this as a community.

How do you think the educational experience will be most different in the 2020-21 school year? Are students at a disadvantage learning online?

I think it certainly will be different and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that we support and enhance our students as we move forward. That’s our goal. Students are with us for a relatively limited period of time, and we want to make sure that we are able to provide the educational content, that support that they need to move forward. And we think about that very actively.

Tuition increases have been a point of criticism for years, and the debate has resurfaced now that the fall quarter and semester is largely online. Can you comment on the price students pay for a UC education?

The University of California is one of the great values in higher education in this country. It’s a great value, given the support that the university provides, like need-based aid policies for families and students who have challenges. We’ve always had the policy of access, affordability and excellence. We want to have policies that make it possible for the greatest number of students and families to afford this outstanding education that we have. I had the privilege of co-chairing the UC Access and Affordability section of the Commission on Higher Education 10 years ago, and our focus was what can we do to help make a UC education affordable to the greatest number of people. That’s an ongoing thing that we were looking at. In Ohio, we were able to decrease the number of students who graduated with debt substantially. For those that did graduate with debt, we were able to decrease the amount of debt they had, so that we were saving tens of millions of dollars per graduating class, compared to how things were just four or five years ago. To me, that was a good measure of affordability. We were continuing to do better every year with that. One of the things that makes education more expensive is spending extra time in school, and not being in the workplace. We want to continue … helping people graduate in four years.

This week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that international students must leave the U.S. if their university transitions to online-only learning. International students make up 14 percent of UC enrollment. Napolitano said on Tuesday, “Making it more difficult for international students to study here undermines decades of collaboration” between the U.S. and other countries. University leaders said the decision will jeopardize the nation’s future. Do you have plans to ensure that students can stay in the country? Have you heard of any proposed actions?

Let me say that it is not in the interest of our students, our university or our country. I want to do what I could to help support policies that are reasonable and appropriate, and that don’t put people in a position of choosing between their health and safety or their careers when those do not enhance us in any way. (The announcement) was a surprise and a disappointment to me when I heard it.

University of California is known for its Free Speech Movement. But in more recent years, UC Berkeley students protested when far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on campus. (The event was canceled, but university administrators allowed him to speak on campus months later). And when you were UC Irvine chancellor, students later widely known as the “Irvine 11” verbally interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech. Those students were charged and convicted by an Orange County jury for interrupting the event. When classes — and campus events and protests resume, how will you ensure that free speech will be protected on campus? At the same time, how will students be protected?

I’ve always been an active protector of free speech. I think it’s an important part of who we are, and there’s a great line that (past UC president) Clark Kerr said that it’s not our job to make speech safe for students; it’s our job to help make students safe for speech. We do what we can to help develop the whole person so that our students can interact appropriately with information that they receive, and are adult enough and intelligent enough to be able to process. I’ve always actively championed the content neutral policy toward speech and speakers. I would say that that requires that speech and speakers be heard, so content neutral means content neutral. One doesn’t have to like or approve of what someone is saying. We are a place where people can bring ideas and where our students can participate and make up their own minds. So I’m an active supporter of the First Amendment. I think it has served this country well, and we need to continue to support it.

Along those lines, given recent protests in response to the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd and the police response to those protests across the country, we hear from students calling for universities to end militarized police presence on UC campuses. Has that been a conversation that you have been a part of, and will it be discussed this coming school year?

Yes, I believe that there are many improvements that we can look toward to help our security and safety forces work in a way that is less militarized, and works more to support and enhance people moving forward. We welcome the opportunity to have those conversations. If we look at the circumstances in which we would call security forces, the overwhelming majority of them don’t call for lethal force to be a part of the encounter, and why we would always have to send someone with that level of force to the encounter doesn’t make sense to me. We’ve also done this in public health, in having a variety of ways that we can respond to a 911 call. We’d like to be able to do the same thing for a security forces, where we have a response that is proportionate to the need.

I’d love to have those conversations. I will say that there are circumstances that I have sadly encountered where we need to have more protection. I’ve had students heartbreakingly murdered. This happened several times over my 15 years. I’ve comforted their parents, I’ve spoken at their funerals. So being safe is critically important, but we also have other ways that we can provide security broadly that allows our security forces to be seen as protectors of our entire population, our entire community, rather than intimidating to certain parts of our community. And that is part of the discussion that we’re having, and I welcome it.

On admissions and addressing issues of equity: The Board of Regents unanimously approved the suspension of the ACT and SAT for all California freshman applicants last month. But Black students remain about 4 percent of those admitted to the University of California. As the first Black president, how do you plan to address access to education for all?

My whole career, I’ve been focused on inclusion and diversity and looking to create opportunities for people to get an outstanding education. I see the University of California, California State University system and community colleges as a part of the master plan of having pathways forward for people broadly across our state. I’ve been supporting that for decades and will continue to support that. I’m pleased at the improvements that we had at UC Irvine when I was there. At Ohio State, we actually doubled the number of African American students admitted between 2014 and today. There was a 20-year decline. We had to stop that decline and then turn things back. And so we’re really pleased about being able to do that. These things are extraordinarily important. We are a public university, we’re here to serve the public broadly, and making sure that we have reasonable access is an important part of it.

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