Incoming UC President Michael V. Drake talks hip-hop, civil rights and climate change

2015 photo shows UCI Chancellor Michael Drake playing the guitar with JT and California Dreamin.
Michael V. Drake, then chancellor at UC Irvine, plays guitar with JT and California Dreamin’ at a 2011 gala for the UCI medical school. Drake has been named president of the University of California.
(Carlos Puma for UCI Health )

It’s not likely that an incoming University of California president has ever had a public chat with the Board of Regents chair that covered such topics as civil rights, green energy and the Notorious B.I.G.

But UC President-designate Michael V. Drake and Board Chair John A. Pérez did just that during an hourlong livestreamed conversation Friday aimed at introducing the new leader’s vision and priorities.

Drake, 70, succinctly summarized his overarching view of the UC’s system’s mission. “The work of the university broadly is meant to create opportunities to uplift the quality of life for our communities,” he said.

The former head of the Ohio State University and UC Irvine was unanimously selected last week by regents, bringing the first Black leader to the helm of the 10-campus system in its 152-year history. Drake, who succeeds President Janet Napolitano, will take office by Aug. 14.

Pérez steered the conversation through both weighty policy issues and fun facts about Drake. For instance: Drake owns a Fender Stratocaster guitar and has played with former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. He indulged his love of music as a teenage clerk, earning less than $2 an hour, at the original Tower Records in Sacramento. And the two musicians whose albums Drake automatically bought, songs unheard, were Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye.


A board member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Drake said the organization’s induction of such rappers as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. illustrated an “important direction” in the evolution of what’s considered rock ‘n’ roll.

“We’re actually thinking of making sure that it’s popular music of the day that’s being supported and brought in,” Drake said.

Michael Drake
Then-Chancellor Michael V. Drake at UC Irvine’s class of 2014 commencement ceremony in Angel Stadium.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

On policy issues, the leaders agreed that the UC system’s world-class research and innovation on climate change give it the gravitas to step into an expanded global role on the issue. During the 10-month presidential search, which included six campus town halls that took place before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, climate change was the top concern raised, Pérez said.

UC uses more green energy than any university in the nation, Pérez said, and in May fully divested from fossil fuels. Drake said the environment was one of his three top areas of focus at UC Irvine, where he served as chancellor from 2005 to 2014. UC Irvine has been ranked by Sierra magazine as one of the nation’s top 10 “Cool Schools” in environmental sustainability for the last decade.

Drake continued his focus on climate change at Ohio State. He discussed with Pérez the university’s research on recapturing carbon for depleted soils, restoring them for more sustainable farming.

“As a globe, as a nation, it’s really critically important that we work to reverse the climate change that we’ve seen changing the ecosystem right before our eyes, and the university is meant to be a leader,” Drake said of UC.

Drake’s passion for social justice has been evident in recent remarks about abusive policing. On Friday, he discussed topics ranging from the Watts riots to the Confederate flag. In discussing a course he has co-taught at both Irvine and Ohio State on music, civil rights and the U.S. Supreme Court, Drake said it was disturbing that many of the root causes of the Watts riots a half-century ago — which a state commission found included high unemployment, poor schools and inferior living conditions for the area’s Black residents — remain problems today.

“We’re repeating these things decades and generations later,” he said. “And I think it left me with a compelling drive to try to figure what we can do differently this time, so that 25 and 50 years from now, no one else is repeating these things again.”

Drake also said it was “high time” that pressure from the NCAA, whose board he chairs, helped prompt Mississippi legislators to vote last month to change its state flag, which has displayed the Confederate battle symbol. The action came days after the NCAA voted to bar any state that displayed prominent Confederate symbols from hosting championships.

“We believe that the flag has so many negative connotations,” Drake said. “It means so much to so many people in such a negative way that this was not appropriate for our student athletes and others to have to confront.”

The two men did not discuss labor relations, although Pérez said the issue was a top concern expressed during the presidential search process. UC’s largest employee union, AFSCME Local 3299, is concerned that campuses have begun to lay off workers during the pandemic and anxious for UC to keep recently forged contractual commitments to significantly limit outsourcing.

The union is critical of the regents’ decision to pay Drake a base salary of $890,000 — a significant boost from Napolitano’s $570,000 but slightly less than his Ohio State pay. It’s “tone-deaf,” said AFSCME spokesman Todd Stenhouse.

Varsha Sarveshwar, president of the UC Student Assn., said some students had also questioned Drake’s salary. Overall, she said, students were excited by the selection of the system’s first Black president and heartened by his pledges to meet with them regularly. Their top issues, she said, include the cost of attendance, equity, diversity and labor justice.

Among faculty members, many have welcomed Drake’s selection and hailed his strong academic qualifications, lived experience as a person of color, familiarity with UC and respect for their work and central role in the shared governance of the system, said Academic Senate Chairwoman Kum-Kum Bhavnani.

In closing, Drake told Pérez there was no other job that would have caused him to delay his planned retirement.

“This is the most impactful public research university in the world,” he said. “It’s changed the quality of life of our state, our nation and our world.”