University of California appoints first black president

Former Ohio State president pledges focus on pandemic, race and environment

July 8, 2020
Michael Drake, president of the University of California system
Michael Drake, president of the University of California

The University of California named Michael Drake its new president, making the outgoing president of Ohio State University the first black leader in the 150-year history of the 10-campus, $40 billion (£32 billion) system.

Professor Drake, an ophthalmologist and California graduate with long experience in the system, said he was eager to help the system and its renowned research capacity confront problems that include the coronavirus crisis and racial inequities.

“We have a global pandemic that is still spreading,” he said after the California Board of Regents unanimously approved his appointment. “We have the yawning wounds of social injustice that we see in so many ways that really tear at the fabric of our lives. We have the long-term threats of environmental degradation and climate change that must be addressed if we are going to continue as a species.”

Professor Drake replaces Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration, who announced plans last year to step down by August and teach public policy at the University of California, Berkeley campus.

Professor Drake earned a bachelor’s degree in African and African American studies from Stanford University and a medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco, where he spent more than two decades on the faculty. He also served a decade as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, before becoming Ohio State’s president in 2014.

California is one of the nation’s biggest public university systems and arguably its most research-intensive, with a $40 billion annual budget and seven of its 10 campuses belonging to the Association of American Universities, the 65-campus grouping of elite research institutions.

The system also struggles, as does much of US society and its higher education systems, with deep racial and economic disparities. Black students account for just 4 per cent of UC enrolment. Professor Drake returns with California voters on the verge of restoring UC’s ability to use affirmative action policies in its admissions decisions.

His appointment generated acclaim across the UC system and beyond.

Kum-Kum Bhavnani, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara serving as chair of the system’s Faculty Academic Senate, said she was excited by Professor Drake’s “commitment to social mobility, and his intimate insights into diversity, policing and inclusion”.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, also commended Professor Drake for bringing both that record on diversity and the “experience, savvy and integrity” required to implement needed changes.

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