On Tuesday, Nov. 10, newly appointed University of California (UC) President Michael B. Drake met with student press from across the UC system to answer their questions and discuss issues ranging from the UC’s budgetary constraints due to the COVID-19 pandemic, campus reopenings and the UC’s relationship with the UC Police Department (UCPD).
Drake was appointed the 21st president of the UC system in August 2020 after serving as president of The Ohio State University (OSU) from 2014 through June 2020. Prior to OSU, he served as the chancellor of UC Irvine from 2005 to 2014 and as the systemwide vice president for health affairs from 2000 to 2005.
Drake began by acknowledging the flexibility and resilience of the student body amidst the campus closure, virtual learning and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He stated that the UC has made great progress and will continue to do so.
The conversation was kicked off by a question about the ways the UC will prevent budget cuts from affecting its most vulnerable employees and contractors. Drake stated that the UC has experienced severe budgetary constraints and expenditures since the pandemic began, with COVID-19 costs exceeding $2.1 billion for the UC since August. Drake stated that his administration will do all they can to protect the UC’s lowest income workers and have been discussing programs to combat this issue, as it is a top priority for them.
Similarly, Drake also addressed the cost of living adjustment (COLA) strikes that were occurring on UC campuses early in the year before being halted by campus closures. Graduate students from across the UC system were demanding cost of living adjustments, fair pay, flexible hours and improved benefits. Drake stated that across the system, campuses have worked hard to provide campus housing and programs to support graduate students broadly. “These are ongoing conversations and as we find our budget squeezed … we don’t want to make decisions that put our graduate students at risk,” he stated.
In regards to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and uncertainty around vaccinations and campus reopenings, Drake stated that his priority is the safety of UC students, faculty and staff. Campuses have been closely monitoring county health departments and the status of the infection rate to determine when in-person instruction will be feasible. While coronavirus testing varies across the UC system, the sensitivity and specificity of the tests has improved rapidly since the start of the pandemic, stated Drake, with over half a million tests being done across the system.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased demands from students to lower tuition and fees across the UC system, resulting in a class action lawsuit against both the UC and CSU. UC tuition rates have been flat for nine years, stated Drake, and there are no plans to increase tuition while instruction is being done remotely. According to Drake, the UC has refunded over $400 million in fees to students for housing and dining services that were not provided earlier in the year and have done what they can to ensure that UC tuition has remained affordable throughout the years. “I think that affordability, access and excellence are cornerstones to an outstanding education, and we wanna make it so that students can be affordable and the best education they can have,” stated Drake.
In response to the failure of California Proposition 16, which aimed to allow for the reinstatement of affirmative action programs in California, Drake stated that he and the regents were disappointed with the outcome. Drake stated that ever since he was a faculty member at UCSF, he was a champion for diversity and rejected the passing of Proposition 209. Despite the failure of Proposition 16, the UC will be active in their outreach and recruitments of students and will continue to champion diversity across the system. Drake highlighted the UC’s milestone of achieving their most diverse class in history, with Latinos making up the largest group of Californians admitted. Similarly, the UC will be active in developing pathways for diverse leadership to be able to rise to positions of power, stated Drake.
The relationship between university policing and campus safety was illuminated after recent events across the country sparked major protests surrounding police brutality and the United States’ long-standing history of institutionalized racism. These have caused an increase in calls across the UC system to defund or decrease the budget of the UCPD. President Drake recently implemented a Campus Safety Task Force on each UC campus assigned to rethink the way that safety is monitored on campuses. Each task force will present a final report to Drake in January with a final recommendation being made in February. Drake opened up about his personal experience with policing growing up in the United States, stating that he has seen and experienced his own communities being targeted disproportionately and understands the need for students to feel safe on campus.
Finally, Drake addressed two issues that he says have been at the forefront of UC issues for many years, mental health and sexual assault. He understands that during the pandemic, students in particular have been going through a difficult transition and stated that he is working to understand the issues with mental health resources on each campus in order to improve them. As OSU president, Drake also worked closely with President-elect Joe Biden to launch the “It’s On Us” campaign, an initiative aimed to combat sexual assaults on campus and implement sexual violence awareness training for all freshmen. He stated that he has been very focused over the years to find programs and initiatives to tackle sexual assault and will continue to work to keep students safe.
Before ending the meeting, President Drake stated that he looks forward to working with his friends, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris throughout their term, two people who have valued education throughout their lives. He hopes to work with the federal government to bring awareness to these issues and others. “I know what an unusual and unsettling time this is for everyone and we don’t take that for granted,” stated Drake, “we all look forward to being on the other side.”