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The mark of greatness

By Jerry HicksPublished: December 01, 2012

With a passion for sports and a knack for baseball analogies, Chancellor Michael Drake of UC Irvine has led his university through continuous growth during the past seven years and now must guide it through several new challenges, including crippling fee hikes.

On a sunny fall afternoon at UC Irvine, a visiting group stopped a tall man in a blue suit walking in front of Aldrich Hall and asked if he could direct them to the flagpole grounds. “You just seemed like someone who would know,” one woman says cheerily.
“Yes,” he said with a grin as he pointed them down a set of stairs to a circular drive, “I do know where the flagpoles are.”
And a lot more.
The visitors were unaware that their volunteer guide happened to be the university chancellor, Michael V. Drake, heading back to his office at Aldrich, the campus administration building.
His smile said it all; it goes with the job. Drake is also UC Irvine’s chief cheerleader. Its head statistician. Its main historian. And its guiding force. Over the last seven years, Drake, 62, has led UC Irvine through the largest growth era since the school was established 47 years ago.
Last spring’s graduating class numbered some 8,900 students. Ten years ago it was barely half that. New applications this fall numbered a record 70,000.
Since Drake took command, UC Irvine has added its own law school, developed a new hospital, constructed a new Humanities building, added a nursing degree and new public health programs, and enlarged programs in fields ranging from the arts to stem-cell research.
Then there’s the new status that has the whole campus almost giddy: Times Higher Education, a United Kingdom-based leader in the world ranking of institutions, listed UC Irvine first among American colleges less than 50 years old – and fourth WORLDWIDE in that category.
These are all reasons that Drake feels confident about how things are going. But he’s more proud of something far less tangible on his watch. “It’s how our faculty and staff have kept their spirits so high in the face of such severe state budget cuts – hundreds of millions of dollars,” Drake says. “Their attitude is the strength of this institution.”
He recently told public TV journalists: “We’ve stayed up on an elevator that’s 
going down.”
Faculty and staff credit Drake, too. Mary Gilly, president of UC Irvine’s Academic Senate, which traditionally bumps heads with administration, gives Drake high marks for including others in decision making: “The chancellor is always open to the Senate’s guidance in the development of our campus and the realizations of its research and teaching goals,” she says.
Drake’s calendar is booked weeks in advance, both day and night. The job takes him on travels around the globe. From classrooms to research to sports, he has a hand in everything. But he tackles his days with an enthusiasm that his staff can’t help but note. He wears his UCI pin almost like a sheriff’s badge.
“I’ll be sitting next to Jean Aldrich, chatting with her,” Drake says, (she’s the widow of the founding chancellor, Dan Aldrich). “Jean is in her 90s but is still very sharp.”
When Drake took over, he insisted that the  Administration Building be named in Aldrich’s honor.
Drake rides his bicycle with the school cycling team; he’s gleeful about just keeping up with them. He follows the campus sports teams with a fan’s zeal. (A volleyball from one of UCI’s three-time men’s NCAA Champion teams is displayed in a special glass case in his office.) He tweets; Twitter is an exciting new world to him. (See “Musings of @UCI_Chancellor.”)
On top of all this, he teaches a freshman seminar class each winter quarter.
“It’s about the U.S. Supreme Court and civil rights – just a few students sitting around a table,” he says. “But I thrive on our discussions.”
But a major bonus to the job, he will tell you, is mixing with UC Irvine’s distinguished faculty. The hallway outside his door is adorned with blown-up photographs of its three Nobel Prize winners. He recently regaled a visitor with his fascination with the work of UCI’s renowned memory research expert, Elizabeth Loftus, who was about to receive the university’s most prestigious award, the 2012 
UC Irvine Medal.
Loftus shares a similar fascination about Drake: “One of the terrific things I have seen Chancellor Drake do is talk to students and their families about the importance of research on a university campus,” she says. “Sometimes the public thinks that faculty members should be spending virtually all of their time teaching students. What they don’t realize – and what I’ve seen the chancellor explain so beautifully – is that the research process is also a teaching process.”
Heady stuff, yes. And Drake doesn’t soft-pedal his excitement. But being an educator was never a part of his original plan. His dream was to be -– and did become –- a doctor.
Drake’s family lived on the East Coast during the first years of his life. At an early age, his family moved to Sacramento, where his father set up a psychiatry practice.
“He’s 99 and still sees patients,” Drake happily boasts.
Drake, only the second African-American president in the UC system, saw his share of racism. He attended segregated schools in his youth, and a few people told him that he shouldn’t set his goals too high. Drake doesn’t call it racism; he prefers to say, “There were challenges.”
As a child, Drake suffered from asthma; some attacks were so bad he had to fight just to catch a breath. His 
father had medicine that helped him through it. But his father did more than that.
“He would hold me until I could start breathing normally again,” Drake recalls. “And just his holding me, it made me feel safe. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life: give others that same feeling.”
At 13, when an older brother in medical school came home for Christmas, Drake thumbed through his books. A thought took root: He understood those books well enough to know that he, too, could be a doctor.
Drake got his undergraduate degree at Stanford University and his medical degree from UC San Francisco, specializing in ophthalmology. It was in medical school that he first got the idea of combining academics with medicine.
“The leaders of that school were just so impressive to me, and for some reason they really liked me,” he says. “I wanted to be a doctor, but they encouraged me to be both: an educator and a doctor.”
They helped him make it happen, he says: “I finished my residency on a Friday, and the next Monday I was back at the university in charge of my own program, with my own budget. But I still had time for medicine and time to perform surgeries.”
The big step for Drake came in 2000, when he was asked to take over as vice president of health affairs for the entire University of California system. That job brought him to UC Irvine many times.
That made him a natural choice for the job when the chancellor’s position opened in 2005. It was an adjustment; his wife and both his sons were also Stanford graduates, and their lives were rooted in the Bay area.
But the welcome that his family received in Orange County made the adjustment much easier, Drake says.
“Irvine has to be one of the nicest cities ever for a place to live. And it was easy to love this campus. So much was going on here.”
An early task was to oversee the construction of the new Humanities building. He forged a friendship with the Humanities dean, Vicki Ruiz.
“Chancellor Drake works tirelessly to make UC Irvine a welcoming place for everyone. He models an easy grace under pressure,” says Ruiz, who has since returned to teaching and is now working on special projects.
Not that Drake’s UC Irvine years have been controversy free. In 2007, he took a beating in the media when he rescinded the approval of a well-known liberal lawyer, Erwin Chemerensky, to be founding dean of the proposed law school. 
Drake compounded his troubles by never fully explaining why he had balked at hiring Chemerensky – though he denied it was pressure from Orange County’s more conservative donors. Drake sat in the national hot seat for days.
Today, he insists that it was never a big deal.
“It was the kind of thing where we just hadn’t worked out all the bugs, which happens a lot when hiring deans,” Drake says. “But once the media got hold of it, it became inflammatory.”
In the end, Chemerensky was hired with Drake’s blessing. Now the two have become close friends. In fact, that class that Drake teaches on the court and civil rights? He team-teaches it with Chemerensky. And last June the law school had its first graduating class, composed of 58 students, all on full scholarship.
“Michael is a superb chancellor, a leader and a visionary,” Chemerensky says. “The success of the Law School simply would not have happened without his commitment at the outset.”
While Drake regrets the initial bad publicity about Chemerensky’s hiring, today he faces a far larger regret: the recent dramatic increase in student fees system-wide for UC schools – 15 percent for most students.
“It’s tragic, but it just cannot be helped,” he says. “These are difficult times with a lot of financial challenges ahead of us.”
It hasn’t made Drake popular with all of the students. Some have complained that he is insensitive to their need to have more say on campus. But Jessica Platt, editor-in-chief of New University, the campus student newspaper, believes that most students are with him.
“From what I’ve seen, he is an effective, caring chancellor genuinely concerned about the interests of the students,” she says. “I appreciate how he seeks student input whenever possible.”
Drake has his own message for students who are upset about the fee increases: “If you qualify and you truly want to come to UC Irvine, we will extend a helping hand financially. We will help you find a way.”
And that means all students. Behind Drake’s desk is a picture taken of UC Berkeley in 1964, from Forbes magazine. It shows hundreds of students pouring out of classes and heading through Berkeley’s iconic Sather Gate.
Just take a close look at that picture, Drake says: “You do not see one face – not one – that shows any diversity. I think I spotted maybe one young woman who might be Asian. Just one.”
He keeps that picture to remind him that education should be for everybody, and that his school needs to continually assure its high level of ethnic diversity. (Today, minorities make up more than 50 percent of UCI’s total student body.)
There’s another piece in his office that says a lot about Drake. It’s a work of art created by a friend, showing the Polo Grounds in New York, during Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. That’s the day of the famous Willie Mays back-to-the-plate catch deep in center field. Drake later became a friend of Mays. One day, the Hall of Famer told him and others about that historic game.
“Willie explained that he wasn’t worried about making the catch; what mattered was the runner on second base, who could score if Willie didn’t get the ball back fast after the catch. If you see it on YouTube, you can see Willie flexing his legs (and here, Drake demonstrates for some visitors) for a big throw to stop the runner. That’s what the great ones do. They’re two or three steps ahead of the rest of us, knowing what needs to be done. That is the true mark of greatness.”
It goes that way for great baseball players. And maybe for chancellors, too.