A closer look at incoming UC President Michael Drake

Illustration of Dr. Michael Drake thoughtfully considering the requests of a group of students asking for COLA
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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Michael Drake will soon succeed Janet Napolitano as the next president of the UC system. Drake will head the UC system at a time of ruining state divestment, a national civil rights uprising and widespread uncertainty about higher education amid a global pandemic. Drake’s appointment may be welcome news to some, but a closer examination of his record is warranted.

Napolitano’s tenure is stained by a series of controversies related to college admissions and the finances of her office. As recently as 2017, Napolitano was admonished by the UC regents for her role in the interference of a state audit. The often adversarial nature of the relationship between UC administration and state leaders has likely been exacerbated by ever-tightening budget constraints.

The workers that tirelessly serve the UC system have had to fight tooth and nail for a livable wage against constant threats of outsourcing. The increasingly privatized structure of the system is struggling to withstand the loss of revenue caused by COVID-19 — the university has announced that it will lay off 3,000 workers systemwide, without a mention of possibly accessing billions of dollars in reserve endowments to prevent layoffs. Even just a 1% increase in the endowment payout at UC Berkeley would generate $50 million for COVID-19 relief funding.

In light of these events, Drake is an excellent choice to head the UC system. His resume within the university includes a medical degree in ophthalmology from UCSF, nine years as chancellor of UC Irvine and a post as the systemwide vice president for health affairs. Drake’s work as chancellor positioned UC Irvine as one of the top colleges for accessibility in higher education, and he worked to officially recognize the campus as a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

Most recently, Drake was president of the Ohio State University, where he led efforts to expand scholarship programs and reduce tuition for middle- and low-income students. But while Drake’s record on improving higher education accessibility and increasing diversity is commendable, it only partially tells his story.

UC Board of Regents chair John Pérez praised Drake for his efforts in furthering diversity and combating sexual assault. However, Drake has been sharply criticized by activists and survivors of sexual assault for his handling of Dr. Richard Strauss’ serial sexual abuse at Ohio State. While this despicable and tragic culture of abuse did not happen on Drake’s watch, activists have characterized his response as not going far enough to establish an educational culture free from fear of abuse.

Furthermore, amid a national conversation about free and open discourse, Drake has been denounced for allegedly suppressing free speech. Drake was criticized in 2010 about the “Irvine 11” controversy, when 11 students interrupted a talk by the then-Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Of the demonstrating students, 10 were prosecuted and found guilty.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California denounced the prosecution of these students. The district attorney at the time, Tony Rackauckas, silenced the peaceful protests of students with dissenting opinions, establishing a dangerous precedent. Only two weeks after the Irvine 11, 17 more people were arrested at UC Irvine after labor activists held a demonstration protesting anti-immigrant hiring practices of a company contracted by the UC system.

While disrupting a speech and interfering with university operations are not under the purview of legally protected free speech, we must consider the apparent inequities in Drake’s delivery of justice. Nonviolent direct action must be a part of any activism to challenge oppressive hierarchies and institutions, and the UC system should refuse to cooperate with any prosecution of nonviolent protesters.

In 2007, Drake attempted to fire prominent law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, the then inaugural dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, after a suspected lobbying effort by wealthy Republican donors and activists. After national outcry denouncing his actions, Drake was forced to reverse course.

When discussing these issues, Chemerinsky said he had worked closely with Drake for six years, even teaching a class together each of those years; he is thrilled at the choice of Drake as president of the UC system. Chemerinsky stressed that while he found the actions of the Orange County district attorney to be outrageous — and that he opposed the criminal prosecution of these students — their actions did not constitute protected free speech.

In June, the UC Academic Senate wrote a letter to Napolitano illustrating the anti-Black, militaristic foundations at the core of modern policing and UC police. The faculty recommended that we defund and disarm the police, reallocate funding to mental health services for victims of police violence and dissolve existing cooperation agreements with law enforcement agencies. Students have also called to defund the police and for a consideration of how to mitigate the permeating anti-Blackness in our institution.

Given the widespread sentiment to abolish the police — and to eliminate their role as a panacea for inequality and dissent — Drake’s appointment could not have come at a better time. In the past few weeks, Drake has both voiced his view that racism itself should be considered a public health emergency and signaled that he would look at ways to reform the police.

As incoming president, Drake must protect the free speech of students challenging the existing order of capitalism and protesting unfair labor practices and ongoing Israeli occupation. He must ensure that the UC system utilizes all of the funding at its disposal to respond to the pandemic. He must take strides to heed the cries of graduate students calling for a cost-of-living adjustment. In order to be an effective UC president, Drake must commit to be on the side of students, workers, faculty and the people of the state of California.

James Ferraro is a rising senior studying history at UC Santa Barbara.