The Interview: School of Thought

with Janet Reilly

Michael Drake, 21st President of the University of California from his office building patio with a view of the mural on the Marriott Hotel called “Zero Hunger” by artist, Victor Ash in Oakland, California on Friday, January 14, 2022. | Photo by Craig Lee

In 1868, when Governor Henry Haight signed the Organic Act, the University of California was born — built on the bold idea that college should be accessible to everyone, regardless of economic or family status. Today, UC has educated generations of Californians and helped make our state the powerhouse it is. Over the course of the university system’s 154-year history, there have been 21 presidents.

Janet Reilly

The 21st, appointed in 2020, is Michael V. Drake, MD. Dr. Drake has a decades-long history with UC as a faculty member, VP of health affairs and chancellor at UC Irvine. Most recently, he was president of Ohio State University.

Dr. Drake was raised in Sacramento — we have a mutual appreciation for Vic’s Ice Cream in our shared hometown; his father was a doctor and his mother a social worker.

He received his AB from Stanford University, his MD from UCSF, and spent more than two decades on the faculty of the UCSF School of Medicine, including as the Steven P. Shearing Professor of Ophthalmology.

As a member of the UC Board of Regents, I have the pleasure of serving with Dr. Drake. On a recent afternoon, we sat down in his Oakland office, where we talked about leading during a pandemic, educational equity and the artists topping his playlist these days.

Meet Dr. Michael Drake.

You became president of the university in August of 2020 — five months into the pandemic. Needless to say, it’s been an eventful year and a half. So let me just begin by asking, how are you doing?

Actually doing great. I was thinking that earlier today. It’s a wonderful university with terrific people. I’ve had a long career now, so I’ve been able to do different things. And every day, one or another of those experiences proves useful. I feel very engaged and it’s a privilege.

How have your past positions — both inside and outside UC — prepared you for your current role?

I had a great career as a faculty member at UCSF. I learned a lot about medicine, academia and research. I had the chance to work with outstanding people, pushing themselves every day to be the best they could be. And that was my life for decades. When I arrived at Irvine, I hadn’t been on a general college campus since I myself had left college. So that was a great learning experience to really expand my horizons and think about different things — to work closely with the community, with politicians, the donor community, which led to working with my higher education colleagues nationally on boards and in organizations.

And then [my wife, Brenda, and I] arrived at Ohio State. Ohio State is larger than any of our UC campuses, and it’s the single flagship in the state so it draws tremendous attention from people. We were three miles from the state capital, so we worked very closely with the legislature and the governor. We were the main game in town for employment and economic stimulation. And we had a major national sports enterprise. Millions of people cared about what we did every day. I’ll say, having the single campus be the single flagship, we were out front alone. The decisions we made had implications. We weren’t following anyone.

Leading during the pandemic certainly has its challenges, including the transition to all-remote learning. What role will remote learning play going forward?

I think we’re moving toward using more technology-enhanced learning — period. And this forced us to move very quickly in that direction. We’ll take the lessons we’ve learned from these last two years and try to apply them so the mix in the near-term future will be overwhelmingly in person, but with significantly more online and virtual learning.

“The innovation that moves our society forward comes from the ideas that come from our great research universities.”

Last fall, the UC system received approximately 250,000 applications for undergraduate admissions — an all-time record number — and more than our campuses are able to accommodate. Do you see remote learning as a way to increase access for more students?

One of the things we saw at my last campus was that as we increased the amount of remote learning and online learning, our time to degree shortened. Students were able to navigate the curriculum more quickly and more easily. And our intent there — and what we saw — was that we could have a smoother pathway through the university. That created space for more students. That was actually a forward-looking plan for us before the pandemic, and we saw it working in real time in 2018, 2019. So I think that will be important for us as we move forward.

Going forward, what are your top priorities for the university?

My first priority is a really boring priority, and it’s that I want us to, every day, relentlessly push ourselves to be better at our core mission. Make ourselves a better version of ourselves. We’ll see shorter time to degree, higher graduation rates, less student debt, and our research enterprise will continue to improve. And I’m very interested in making sure we continue to see ourselves as a great place to work, and that the staff see and feel and understand how much we care about them and how important their work is. Those things are behind the scenes, but I think they are important for us.

For sure.

A second thing that’s been really important on the other side is climate change. I think there are few entities in our sphere that have the opportunity to have as much impact on climate change, so I want to make sure the work that we do is focused and impactful enough that we’re actually able to see that we’re moving the needle.We have to be more effective at policy influence, so that’s working with the state and our federal partners. And the third thing we can do is walk the talk: be the most efficient and effective enterprise possible so we can decrease our energy usage and make ourselves carbon neutral as quickly as we can. I’m very interested in regenerative organic farming and locally sourced, sustainably produced food. We want to be great examples. So those are the three things: the science, the policy and then our own behavior.

As president, you oversee 10 campuses, five medical centers, three nationally affiliated labs, 280,000 students and 230,000 employees. What is a typical day like for President Michael Drake?

I think for people in these positions, generally, a typical day is: Issues come to you for resolution or direction. The thing that’s most typical about them is they come from every point on the compass, one after another, and they are routinely impactful. We are going to be dealing with some significant employment issues at the regents meeting that’s coming up next week. We are going to be talking about the capacity of the university, about our ability to accept and educate more students and how we might do that. We’ll be talking about educational partnerships. We’ll be talking about the budget … about curriculum. What is the balance between online and in-person education?

There really is no end to the issues! What do you see as the biggest challenges for the university right now?

Oftentimes, the challenges for us are the challenges of the world and the ones we are actively working on. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made in reimagining campus safety. How do we make our campuses even more safe while treating everyone with respect? It’s a balance that’s not been achieved in many places.


When we have a community as large as ours — 500,000 people — and as diverse as ours, people coming from different points of view and different places in the country and around the world, we have many opportunities to learn ways to help us all live better together, more than is the case in much of the normal world. Being a model of that diverse, inclusive community is something that we expect of ourselves, and that takes work.

President Drake and wife Brenda with their sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren at the holidays. Son Christopher (far left) is a lawyer while son Sean (near right) is a professor.

Cutting-edge research is happening throughout the university. I’m going to single out UCSF only because we are in the Bay Area. UCSF has been at the forefront of science and research, from David Julius’ Nobel Prize for pain research to many findings that have been so important during the pandemic. What makes UCSF such a leader in the field?

UCSF had the benefit half a century ago of attracting visionary leaders that understood well the connection between basic science and the health and well-being of people in the world. A foundation in basic science was what that had to be built on. Then those leaders attracted other visionary leaders and scientists, and those scientists attracted other scientists. And it built a cadre of really outstanding people. And, then the feeling — and I’m going back decades now — but the feeling was that your expected daily performance was to be the best in the world. That’s how I felt every day. It’s a high bar. But there was a great privilege to being surrounded by people who were seeking that same high bar, and that just became the norm. And then recycling those values and those principles and that work ethic has helped keep the university where it is.

That’s fantastic.

And, can I just say this: If we were sitting at UCLA, I’d say the same thing. If we were at Davis … If we were in our agricultural research stations … You mentioned our campuses and the national labs. We also have a broad division of agricultural and natural resources that goes from the southernmost to the northernmost part of the state. … We’re working right now on trying to do better [everywhere]. That’s our mantra.

Are there any particular scientific research initiatives that are being worked on anywhere in the university that you’re keeping an eye on and particularly excited about?

The work of Jennifer Doudna and CRISPR and the potential of gene editing is at the top of the list of things that have an infinite potential impact on our future.

The University of California is an incredible vehicle for social mobility. Forty percent of enrolled undergraduate students are the first generation in their family to attend college, and 35 percent receive Federal Pell Grants.

We are a tremendous engine for social mobility. There are lots of others as well. The community colleges would be more diverse. Our state university system is larger than we are, and they provide pathways for hundreds of thousands of students. If you compare us specifically to research-intensive universities, then we’re great leaders in the diversity of our student body. We are as inclusive as anyone, and we are as research intensive as anyone, and that’s great. The mantra in the past would’ve been that your academic excellence and your diversity are somehow in conflict with one another. And we are intent on showing over and over again that diversity is a part of academic excellence.

Last year, the Board of Regents eliminated the requirement for the SAT and the ACT for admission to the university. What impact are you seeing?

I think there were people who found the test a barrier and chose not to apply. [Since eliminating the test requirements] we saw many people in that category say, “Let me apply and see what happens,” and they put in extraordinarily strong applications. So we had an expansion in the diversity of our applicant pool. So that was great. We looked at the class and found, in fact, it was more diverse, but modestly so. We didn’t expect there to be an overwhelming change. It made no particular difference in our ability to admit an outstanding class.

You’ve written extensively on equity and education. What does that look like to you, and how can UC be a champion in this area?

A series of things reflect that. We would want to see our applicant pool broadly reflect the people who live in our society. We want that to be broadly across zip codes. And we’re actually doing a pretty good job of that. Our numbers keep looking better and better. Our medical schools are one of the things we look at a lot. It takes a long time. It’s a 20-, 25- year process generally to go to medical school. You have to get focused from the very beginning. We look at the demographics of the communities 10 years, 15 years ago and say, “Gosh, how do we reflect those demographics?” We’re matching up pretty well — not perfectly, but pretty well. When we go to the next level, though, to graduate school or to professional schools, and then particularly to our faculty, we still have a long way to go. So equity will mean to me that we are able to do a better job of diversifying our faculty in particular. This is a generation-long effort we have to continue pushing forward. We see the wave coming, but we have to continue pushing forward.


I’m happiest when … I’m with my family. I just love being with my grandchildren
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken is, or was ... Driving a racecar at high speeds around the Sonoma Raceway. A gift from Brenda.
The biggest regret I have is … I was once asked what I’d say to my 19-year-old self. It’s not a regret. I just think we all need to make sure we enjoy and appreciate what we have and who we are and the blessing of life.
If I had a magic wand, I would ... Get a boatload of magic wands, I guess. I’d want us all to take a step back and appreciate each other more.

The university has a huge economic impact on the state of California, returning $82 billion annually to the state’s economy. It is the third-largest employer in the state, which has the fifth-largest economy in the world. Put some perspective on this.

In one of the talks I used to give, I would say to people, “Close your eyes. Imagine the United States, a map of the United States. Think about three places where there’s innovation and put your finger on top of those places on the map.” Everybody would mention the different places. And then I’d say, “What I know for sure, no matter where you mentioned, when you lift your finger, under your finger would’ve been a great university. The innovation that moves our society forward comes from the ideas that come from our great research universities.” We are here to come up with the knowledge that helps us lift and propel our society forward.

You sit on the board of directors of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and you’re a musician yourself. Tell me a little bit about that.

Well, the first is true. The second requires a very large definition of what a musician is. People say, “Do you play guitar?” And I say, “Well, I play with a guitar.” I’ve just always been a music fan. My mother had unfulfilled aspirations to be a singer. She loved singing in college. My father joined the glee club so he could get a chance to meet my mother. Music was the thing that connected our family. I worked at Tower Records when I was in college. I just always had a love of music and played with friends. And then I honestly stopped for 38 years, at least. Then I went to a 60th birthday party for a friend, and they had a band of old people playing music like I would’ve played as a teenager, and it looked like they were having fun. So I got another guitar and started playing again. I joined a little band when I was in Southern California and then in Columbus, and that led to being on the board of the Rock Hall. And then we played fundraisers for the Rock Hall.

What’s on your playlist these days?

There’s a French radio station called FIP that my wife listens to. It is totally eclectic. She has that playing in the house a lot, so that’s really terrific. I listen to Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, and I find myself listening a lot to the Commodores.

Do you have a favorite rock and roll band?

With the band, we would play one or another Beatles song. We also would play songs of newly inducted members. We played Foo Fighters. I actually learned more about Foo Fighters and the Cure and those bands from playing with this group associated with the Rock Hall. I was pleased to see Foo Fighters inducted this year. I think that Dave Grohl is a torchbearer of the enterprise.

I’m sure you love it, but you have a very stressful job. What do you do to relax?

I still listen to music. I still have a guitar. That helps tremendously. And then I have a Peloton stationary bike that I ride with some religious fervor!

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