The UC system desperately needs to turn over a new leaf.
Fortunately, when former UC Irvine chancellor and recent Ohio State University president Michael Drake assumes the office of UC president Aug. 1, such change could be possible.
The UC system is in crisis, and a core theme underlies its challenges: The UC system underrepresents, underserves or exploits every marginalized group it ought to uplift. Above all, the UC president’s role is to guide a vast institution toward solutions to its structural problems — addressing gentrification of campuses’ communities, advancing accountability and support for instances of sexual misconduct and ensuring equity and diversity from admissions to graduation.
Swift leadership is needed. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, plans for fall semester instruction are altered or amended weekly. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, the University Council-American Federation of Teachers and those advocating for a cost-of-living adjustment are unrelentingly undercompensated, working without contracts or paying most of their income simply to remain housed. The UC system’s six-year graduation rate for Black students is 10% lower than that of UC undergraduates generally.
Drake must address these failures, among others, but UC students, employees, educators and even alumni will also need to hold him accountable for something more profound. Drake will need to ensure UC workers and students always come before considerations of power, wealth or prestige.
Drake’s record of achieving such transformations is mixed. Drake stridently opposed California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, a law signed last year enabling college athletes to profit from the commercial use of their identities. Yet Drake also oversaw gains in diversity at Ohio State, favoring affirmative action and marginally improving affordability. Drake also called for protections for undocumented students and effectively responded to sexual misconduct and harassment in the Ohio State marching band.
Unfortunately, Drake may need to call on this experience: The federal government has weakened Title IX protections in recent years, and UC students and workers have strikingly few protections — and little institutional support — when they seek accountability for sexual misconduct.
Recognizing the countless UC employees working for minimal wages without contracts, Drake should work to more justly compensate the UC system’s indispensable workers. As Drake’s annual compensation was approved at an astonishing $890,000, taking a symbolic pay cut could be a first step toward acknowledging the UC system’s inequities.
Drake will also need to innovate. Every UC campus will need to redesign its offerings to strengthen online education, and coordinating courses and resources across campuses could bolster those solutions. And as the pandemic erodes the substance and the value of a UC education, Drake should — at minimum — continue President Janet Napolitano’s efforts to keep in-state tuition stable.
Above all, Drake has a duty to ensure equity and an empowering education for the quarter million students whose futures depend on him.