10th Anniversary Interview Series: UC President Michael V. Drake

by California Competes


Topics: Affordability, Bachelor's Degrees, Degree Attainment, Enrollment, Four-Year Colleges, Master Plan, Race and Ethnicity, Ed Equity, COVID-19, Online Education, Student Parents


Recorded on September 14, 2021

After a year and half, students across the state are returning to in-person instruction, and institution leadership, faculty, and the community it serves are adjusting to the new normal of campus learning in parallel with the pandemic’s unpredictable trajectory. Though the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many challenges across higher education, it has also motivated many institutional leaders to reimagine and evolve the way they educate and support their students, staff, and overall enterprise.

An extensive search for the University of California’s next systemwide leader began in September 2019 and bridged well into the middle of the pandemic, during which California Competes Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez testified that the future UC President should have a focus on strengthening pathways for underserved communities and champion change in how higher education equitably drives the state’s economy.

The UC found just that. A prominent academic leader that stewards equity in his work, President Michael V. Drake was appointed the 21st UC system leader in August 2020. He oversees the UC’s world-renowned enterprise of 10 campuses, five medical centers, three nationally affiliated labs, more than 280,000 students and 230,000 faculty and staff.

President Drake’s tenure at UC Irvine, where he was prior to his President appointment, demonstrated his commitment to inclusion, social mobility, and supporting the whole student. There, he propelled the institution’s reputation to that of a premier university, marked with increases in enrollment and graduation rates.

For California Competes 10th anniversary interview series, UC President Drake joins Dr. Jez for a discussion on equitable access, affordability, and the future of online instruction in higher education. Continue reading to read highlights of their conversation.


Dr. Jez: You’ve now been president of the University of California for more than a year. Looking back over these past 12 months, what are you most proud of?

President Drake: I’d say the way that our students, faculty, and staff really changed their method of doing business to something that would fit in this new world. Our students and faculty had to adjust within days or weeks to being online. Everyone had to balance home life and work life together in ways that weren’t the case before. I'm very proud of the work of the entire enterprise and how it was able to move forward during these really difficult times.

We also were focusing on the place of racism, institutional racism, and social justice in the United States. We put together an anti-racism taskforce, and there were a whole series of campus efforts that really focused on making what we do today, tomorrow, and in the years to come to be a better, more inclusive, more welcoming enterprise.

We have a new campus community safety platform that has been created and released, representing thousands of students, faculty, staff, and other community members who have contributed to that. So we're pleased to have that come out over the year.

There are also a couple of other things that are points of pride. There were six Nobel prizes last year, and we shared in part of three of them. It was great that we got that recognition for the work that people have been doing over decades. Forbes and US News & World Report came out with rankings. We have six of the top 10 public universities and all [UCs] in the top 100 public universities on US News & World Report.

Forbes actually changed their methodology to be more focused on who you are actually educating and how broadly you can do that. And in doing that, public universities did better than they do under the US News rubric. We were really pleased that UC Berkeley ranked as number one in the country among all public and private universities, and we have four in the top 20. Forbes only looks at about 20% of the universities, and all of our universities, even our newest one, UC Merced had made that list as being among the best. So we love things that we win, and I'm really pleased that we won. We did better based on the fact that they took a step back and said “What are you actually doing? Who are you actually incorporating in your enterprise?” That really bolted us to the top, and I'm very proud of that.

Dr Jez: Wow, a lot has been happening. I wrote down your quote “We love things that we win,” and there's definitely winning happening. Congratulations on all of that.

President Drake: What I really love is things that we win where we didn't know there was a competition. We didn't know that Forbes was going to improve the way that they evaluated universities. We were doing things in the best way we knew how, and we're happy that their [reexamination of] how they were ranking universities then supported and validated that. We had this happen a couple of years ago where the New York Times began a ranking of universities, and they were looking at what universities did to help with social mobility. UC Irvine, where I had been, came out top in the country in their measure of social mobility.

When you have a narrow entry criteria, and you have a very small group of highly motivated, highly talented people, they'll do great. It's something different, though, when you are many times larger, and you haven't said “Well, you have to be an A+ [student] to walk in the door. So if we can be broader in the people that we include, and then elevate that broader group of people, that--to me--is even more meaningful. It's a big part of what we feel is important as a public institution.

Dr. Jez: You mentioned a number of things that are shared priorities with California Competes, and I was happy to hear you mention them. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the future of online and hybrid [learning] in the UC, and do you see a role for online and hybrid [learning] to broaden access?

President Drake: It's a larger part of what we're doing today, it'll be a larger part of what we're doing this week and next month, and it will be a larger part of what we're doing next year. We have to adjust, learn, and perfect it, but it will continue to make us better. I don't see it as an “instead of.” I see it as an adjunct to the residential and in-person education that we believe works so well and adds so much value.

There are places that it can add [value]. We've seen it in our telemedicine programs where we went to no elective procedures and only virtual elective visits in the spring of 2020. Now, we're about 75-80% in person visits [and] 20-30% visits still virtual. In fact, the combination of in-person plus virtual means we see more patients today than we would have seen two years ago. So we're back to more than 100%.

We find it in mental health care--that it's been the preference of most people. You get much of the value, and you remove a lot of the hassle from driving, parking, and waiting for that one to one connection. So, we think that will continue to be a large part of mental health.

The other part of your question: where are the places, [considering] the broad diversity of our constituencies, do we think greater use of virtual means and connectivity will help? I’m 100% sure that that's the case. We're able to get to people, or people can get to us much more conveniently through digital means than they can through many other [avenues]. We think we'll be able to reach more people, and our students will be able to reach more students. What we'll have to do is focus on the digital divide, and make sure that everyone has full access to effective broadband. We're working with others to make sure that that's the case. We consider it now as a part of our basic needs profile for our students, and I think this really can be a pathway to a more equitable future.

Dr. Jez: You also mentioned the impact of the pandemic in the past year on those that have dependents or are parents. This is something that California Competes has a new policy agenda around, supporting student parents or Californian who are parents who want to go to college. Were you talking about student parents, and if so, will you talk a little bit about how the UC is thinking about that?

President Drake: I was really talking about all of the above. I found in Zoom [meetings] with groups of students, some of them would have younger siblings running back and forth in the background, who were caring for or helping with homework in addition to their normal work. Some of them also were taking care of or supporting their parents. Our faculty, in particular, would be supporting their elderly parents. So, the home support component of this was an extra burden for so many of our people, particularly women. We really want to acknowledge and recognize how the pandemic has different effects on different people. A significant fraction of our students now are students who have children. [When] we think broadly about who's in college today, most students are what would have been called non-traditional students. They're older, they're part of families, they're veterans, etc. All of those are a part of our community. Now, we just have to be thoughtful about the ways that we work to support them.

Dr. Jez: How is the UC supporting the state's economic recovery, especially for those populations that have been most adversely affected?

President Drake: We're a very large employer -- about 225,000 employees. I was pleased and proud of the university for [implementing] a jobs protection plan about a year ago. We were not going to lay off anyone for economic reasons during the COVID crisis. From the fall of last year through this summer, we worked on ways to transfer or retrain, or otherwise protect our workers. We were pleased to be able to get through the worst of the financial crisis for the university and be able to support those jobs for those families.

About half of our workforce works in health services. [This] group has been working the whole time. In fact, they've been working harder than ever in their lives. So, we've done all that we could to keep them safe and to support them psychologically. We make sure that they know that the life-saving work that they're doing is truly appreciated.

We believe very much in creating a safe workplace, for our faculty, for our staff, and for our students. We have policies on campus that I believe will be the things that are necessary to create the safest possible workplace and safest possible place to go to school. Our policies for people returning to work, which require vaccines and masks, is the best way that we can keep campuses safe as we move into the fall.

Dr. Jez: Earlier announced this year, the UC admitted its most racially diverse undergraduate class in history. How do you plan to build on that momentum?

President Drake: We believe in access, affordability, and excellence. We've done some things to enhance affordability dramatically this last year that will continue to bear fruit as we move forward. We'll make it so that most students will be able to go to university and graduate debt free.

We think about access broadly. That means that we want people from all zip codes in California, from other places in the country, and around the world to be able to aspire to a UC education and to see a pathway forward. We're happy that the class that graduated was the most diverse we would have ever graduated and the new class is more diverse than the one that we had admitted last year. We believe that this is [because we’re] doing a better job of getting closer to reflecting the people of the state of California. It’s ongoing daily work to really be inclusive of the people who are “us.” It isn't a “them” and then a “us”, it’s all of us together and so we'll keep working on that. Things look different than they looked 10, 20, and 30 years ago, and we just have to keep it up. It's not rapid but we can see a change.

Dr. Jez: The other headline that the UCs made this year was when the UC regents voted to raise tuition. Can you talk more about the debt free path, and how the UC is trying to protect access for low-income Californians?

President Drake: Sixty percent of our students pay nearly no tuition now and will pay no tuition in the future. [The tuition stabilization plan] is a cohort plan. So it goes up a year; your tuition is a little higher than last year, but that stays stable for six years going forward. We have a return-to-aid component in that, so as tuition goes up, there's more money returned to the need-based aid pool. For the 60 percent of our students who pay no tuition, that increased money in the aid pool means that college is more affordable to them than it would have been in the old plan.

For about 20% of the student base, it's roughly the same. It’s only the students from the top 20% of the income distribution that will end up paying a little bit more per year as they go through. Those are families in the $180,000-$200,000 a year or more range. Yes, their tuition will go up by a few hundred a year but once it goes up, it stays stable and flat for six years. That planning and stability makes it much more affordable for those families as well.

We did this when I was at Ohio State and what we saw was the number of students who graduated with no debt continued to increase [and] students who had debt when they graduated were graduating with less debt than the students from the years before. As that moves forward, you get a greater number of people graduating with no debt, the amount of debt that students who have to take out debt goes lower and lower until you get that to a minimum. It was a very important [and] positive thing for us five years ago [at UC Irvine], and as we look back on the next five years, [the UCs] will become more affordable, particularly for middle and lower income students and their families.

Dr. Jez: Racial diversity is a challenge, not just about student recruitment but through multiple facets of the academy. Less than 17% of UC university presidents are people of color, and less than 9% of UC university presidents are black. Can you talk about your lived experience as a person of color, and how has that impacted your vision for the UC and your leadership style?

President Drake: We all live our lives as ourselves, and so it's hard to say what your life would be like if you were somebody else. I was born in a time of segregation that began at totally segregated schools when I was in elementary school. Then, we moved to California, and the schools were integrated, but often, my brother and I would be the only ones in different places. You had to do more; it just meant doing your best. I just always feel that the job that we have is to do the best we can for everyone and have the institutions continue to move forward.

I was doing a Zoom [meeting] a few weeks ago with a former mentee, and he was hosting a group of African American students in the MD PhD program at UCSF. There were [about] nine people on the screen--that number sure used to be zero. To have an actual collection of now several people who are focused on careers that will help them to be academic leaders and the professoriate and to have my Zoom screen filled up with them --that's something unheard of in the history of our world 10-12 years ago. You can see things changing slowly but [we’re] making that progress. I've always tried to do things that would help the inclusive pathway behind me be broader than the one that faced me. Knowing that many others are working on this is always gratifying, and seeing that we can make change is something that is encouraging.

Dr. Jez: How is the UC working to be good partners with the California State universities and the community colleges, and how could stronger coordination improve California's higher education.

President Drake: We want to make transfer as smooth and seamless as possible, and it's always a little bit in the art of it, but our incoming undergraduate classes are about one-third transfer students, mainly from CSUs and community colleges. We're also thinking with CSUs of training people who will be the professoriate of the future people, our faculty, the faculty for the CSU, and for the community colleges. We have more and more programs that we're doing where we overlap and do things together. I think that's going to be another way of us moving forward in the future -- finding ways to have partnerships. California is very lucky to have a robust community college system and an incredible set of institutions within the California State University system, the largest state university system in the country. We're proud to be partners with them and are doing all we can to create pathways forward for post-secondary education for Californians.

Dr. Jez: Looking ahead, what are your most important priorities for the upcoming year?

President Drake: Today’s priority is to return safely to the in-person experience that our students crave and that our faculty really appreciate. We expect about 85% of our classes will be in person. We want that to happen, have that work well, and have it be safe. So our return to class, return to work policies are very important. We think that a vaccinated student body, faculty and staff and wearing masks indoors should really impede the ability of the virus to spread. We should get down to really low numbers on our campuses by mid-October and are going to do everything we can to make that true and learn this new way of living in parallel with the pandemic.

We've spent a lot of time thinking about our campus safety plan, the role of campus safety personnel, the role of police on campus, [and being] actively anti-racist in our behavior, not just non-racist, but really anti racist in our behavior. We think a lot about that as that's a real opportunity [and challenge] for us.

And then lastly, just protecting the enthusiasm and mental health balance of all of our community, but particularly those in our health services who've had to do things that they never expect to have to do over and over. We've had our healthcare workforce, our doctors, or nurses stand in for the families of patients who were at the end of their lives because their families couldn't come to see them at the most impactful moments in life. That's awful for everyone doing it over and over again. That is a burden that our healthcare workforce carried with great grace and sensitivity. So, we want to make sure to embrace and support them as we're moving through this.

Dr. Jez: Thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to seeing the UC move forward, particularly given your leadership around the health sciences. How you move forward on the priorities you've just named will be really informative as other educational institutions, and frankly, other organizations are trying to figure out the same things for the communities they serve and for their staff. So I, again, just want to say I appreciate your time with us today and your leadership in our state.

President Drake: Thank you very much. I look forward to us all being able to be in the same rooms together since we're neighbors and working close by. I really appreciate the work that California Competes does. It's really doing a lot to help us be more equitable and racially just in our workforce, post-secondary education, and community. So thanks very much for all that you do, and I look forward to continuing to work with you.