(CN) — The University of California Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve Michael Drake, former president of Ohio State University and the University of California, Irvine, as the first black UC president in the 152-year history of the higher education system.
“Today is one of the most momentous events in our history,” said Board of Regents Chair John Perez.
Drake will replace outgoing UC President Janet Napolitano, who announced her departure three weeks ago. Napolitano was the first woman to serve as president of the UC system.
“Michael is the first person of color to lead the university,” Napolitano said during the meeting of the UC Regents. “It’s an important moment, one more step for our university system in its ongoing effort to ensure university reflects the rich diversity of our state.”
Drake, who will turn 70 on Thursday, is currently the president of The Ohio State University, a position he has served in since 2014. Drake was the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, from 2005 to 2014.
Drake’s appointment takes on significance as the United States and its various institutions, including higher education, continue to confront its past of racial inequality. The UC system, widely considered to be one of the most prestigious public higher education systems in the world, has grappled with accusations of racial bias, as the demographics of those admitted to the system have not reflected the demographics of the state.
Specifically, black people and non-Hispanic Latinos are underrepresented in the university system when compared with their broader population in the state of California and the demographics of high school graduates.
Asian-Americans and white students both consistently have a higher share of incoming freshman population versus the share of high school graduation in the state.
“Michael Drake shares our values and his record on diversity and access is extraordinary,” said Sherry Lansing, a UC Regent who helped launch the search committee that landed Drake.
Drake announced his retirement from Ohio State in June and intended to resume the duties of a regular faculty member until UC began to recruit him for the position.
“I am excited to join the UC family as we move forward,” Drake said after the vote was taken.
Drake said the university and the greater public it serves will have to face challenges in the short- and long-term.
“We are amid a global pandemic that is still spreading and we are dealing with the yawning wounds of social injustice,” he said. “There are longer-term threats like environmental degradation and climate change that must be addressed if we are to continue as a species.”
Drake said the UC system is poised to help confront those problems and offer solutions.
In the near term, the UC system is faced with an imminent decision about whether to allow students to return to campus this fall. California continues to struggle amid the throes of a coronavirus resurgence, with Southern California, in particular, exhibiting signs of being one of the worst virus hot spots in the country.
The system is currently planning to provide most classes via online platforms, with some exceptions for in-person labs and small discussion seminars that are difficult to execute remotely. Additionally, the system is poised to allow some students to return to on-campus housing, but plans remain fluid.
Drake was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey, but moved his family to Sacramento, California when still young. He attended Stanford University and received advanced degrees from the University of California, San Francisco.
He is an ophthalmologist by trade.