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Dr. Michael Drake is at the end of his first year as president of the University of California (UC) system, which includes 10 campuses, five medical centers, and three nationally affiliated labs.

Over his professional career, he has worked in a variety of leadership positions at various research, public and athletic institutions as well as medical centers.

For the last 40 years, Drake has not applied for a job. Other people called him, asking if he would be interested in a new position.

After receiving his A.B. from Stanford University and his residency, M.D., and fellowship in ophthalmology from UCSF, he subsequently spent more than two decades on the faculty of the UCSF School of Medicine. Drake has a long and distinguished career in higher education, most recently as president of The Ohio State University (OSU) from 2014. Prior to his six years at OSU, his entire academic career has been at UC, including as chancellor of UC Irvine for nine years from 2005 to 2014 and as the systemwide vice president for health affairs from 2000 to 2005.

The breadth of his experience is impressive.

“That was a big help in coming to the complicated system like University of California,” Drake said. “Then, too, I’ve lived my life.”

Explaining that he is familiar with the Jim Crow antics of various communities, Drake was born in New York City in 1950 and grew up in New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee and California. The son of a doctor and a social worker, Drake was the first African-American president of C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento and says that his life experiences have been useful in diversifying colleges.

When asked if he considers himself a game changer as the first African-American president of the UC System, comprised of more than 500,000 students and employees, Drake responded “I see us all as game changers—all of us have a role in moving forward.”

There was a record-breaking number of freshman admission across the University of California system this year. Classes started at UCLA last week with more than 15,000 high school seniors and 5,300 transfer applicants offered admission this fall, representing the university’s most academically accomplished class and one of its most diverse. In fact, the entire 10-campus system has its largest and most diverse class this fall. Forty-five percent of UC students are members of underrepresented minority groups. This is a significant jump in the number of students from groups that have been historically underrepresented on campus.

System-wide, admissions of Black students grew by 15.6 percent, rising to 4,608 from 3,987 in 2020. Among admitted U.S. freshman at UCLA, the number of Black students increased by 21 percent over last year.

“We’d like those numbers to continue to rise,” Drake said, noting that population changes are moving minority numbers up across the state in that way as well. The UC president stresses access, affordability and excellence all together—not one at the expense of the other.

“We are still in many ways building back from Proposition 209,” he said, referring to the proposition which, in 1996, banned affirmative action. The UC Board of Regents last year said 209 had challenged the university’s efforts to be fair and inclusive as it seeks to attract the best and brightest students from all backgrounds.

Drake claims that the UC system is doing what it should to close the education gaps.

“We’re not where we want to be but we are making progress,” he said.

Drake explained that the years of racial inequity in education fostered by the country’s decades-long White supremacy are due to fall. He has met with Black alumni group leaders who are ready for change and he feels diversity is critical and change is on its way.

There are plans to enroll additional students and significantly grow enrollment of racially inclusive classes without building a new UC campus.

Campus safety & access

“Covid has been such a strange time for all of us,” Drake said, stressing that campus safety is a priority.

The UC vaccination policy, which affects all University of California locations and faculty, academic personnel, staff, trainees, students, and others accessing university facilities and programs, states that covered individuals must receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition to their physical presence at locations and in university programs, unless they have been granted an exception or deferral.

Students who fail to provide proof of vaccination or apply for an exception or deferral by the implementation date may, therefore, be subject to a registration hold.

The policy also notes that all locations that are campuses and medical centers must offer COVID-19 vaccination on-site or maintain a list of nearby and accessible off-site locations offering vaccination to individuals during working and non-working hours. Compliance with the order is required as a condition of physical presence at any UC health care facility after September 30.

It was partially due to the pandemic that the system no longer requires SAT test results for admission. UC was sued by a group of disabled persons, who argued that it was too difficult to get to testing sites.

“We saw there was very little added value to Standardized tests,” Drake said, adding that there are 15 – 18 characteristics used in evaluating students for admission.

“Removing the test did not hurt,” Drake said. “The class looks actually quite good, we are very proud of this class.”

According to UCLA, the academic credentials of the admitted fall 2021 freshman class exceed those of any previous class, as measured by unweighted and weighted GPA and the number of completed honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and University of California-required A-G courses.

The president explained that the universities spent 20 years moving away from the SAT tests, then the lawsuit was filed and currently, there are no standardized tests required. Drake said that even if the system developed one in the future, it would be a difficult process: making sure the test questions were non-discriminatory would involve years of research and development.

“I don’t know if that’s possible, practical or worth the effort,” he said.

Though a college education is not for everyone, many high school students who wish to pursue a degree have anxiety regarding the possible cost. Drake insists that he and his staff are continually working on affordability. He said that 56 percent of UC students pay no tuition today and many others have reduced tuition.

“We have a very robust financial aid program and will work with you,” Drake explained, adding that they hope to create a student pathway to “no student debt” within the next five years with some help from Sacramento, including the doubling of Pell Grants.

“Affordability is continually important to us,” Drake said. “We don’t want that to be a gap.”

Excellence

Every three students admitted this fall on UC campuses were community college transfer students. Forty-five percent are from low or middle income families. Forty-five percent of incoming students are the first to go to college in their families.

Drake sees higher education as a pathway to the future and wants more Blacks to take advantage of the UC System.

“Maximize your human potential through higher education,” he said. “We are here for the purpose of educating students. I encourage you to prepare and apply. Don’t be intimidated by anyone. If you don’t apply, you certainly won’t be admitted. Give us at least a chance to show you the way.”

When asked what advice he would give to South LA youngsters getting ready for their futures, Drake referred back to the lessons he and his spouse taught their two sons, who are now grown.

“I started one step at a time,” Drake said. “Day by day, trying. And doing a good job today, and try and do a good job tomorrow.”

“Have respect for yourself and others,” he added, noting that there are four qualities he especially admires. “Intellectual curiosity; integrity – telling the truth and working hard to make sure you are living your life right; commitment — that passion. Lean into it and do your very best; be empathetic—care about other people. Have an appreciation for others and their variety of experiences; and lastly have fun—these are our lives and the only one we get. Enjoy it. It shouldn’t be a drag.”

Future

In the long term, Drake believes that the UC system can be a game changer when it comes to addressing global warming and the climate crisis.

“We can move the needle on climate change,” Drake said, noting that the system’s large science and research platform can help shape new policies and they intend to put their purchasing power in that direction.

“We want to reflect well the behavior we think everyone should take,” he said. “The world needs the Universities of California.”