Together, we can
President Michael V. Drake shares his hopes, plans and early impressions in an interview with Ohio State Alumni magazine.
Michael V. Drake has been committed to the ideal of the land-grant mission for as long as he can remember.
A son of college graduates, Drake grew up expecting to go to college. His path took him to Stanford University for a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences and African American studies, UC-San Francisco for a medical degree and ultimately into higher education. Along the way he developed a keen appreciation for the role public universities play in empowering individuals and communities.
When Drake recently was appointed to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Board of Directors, APLU President Peter McPherson said he “represents the very best of our public university leaders.”
Drake took over as president of the country’s largest land-grant institution on June 30, 2014. He sat down with Ohio State Alumni magazine to talk about his first months serving as Ohio State’s 15th president.
New to OSU
What have you learned about Ohio State in your first months here?
First, because of my life in academics, I certainly knew about the power and influence of Ohio State across the country and around the world. It’s really what drew my wife, Brenda, and me here. Being here, I feel it even more. It is easy to see how much of a difference the university makes to central Ohio, to the state of Ohio and to people nationally. What happens here really matters. I’ve been able to experience and feel that, and it’s been great.
Second, I’m overwhelmed by the sincere devotion to the university expressed by our alumni and also by our faculty and staff, students and the community at large. People are connected to the university in a special way. There is a great feeling, a great vibe that being a Buckeye is a special thing. It’s a source of well-deserved pride.
Has anything surprised you about Columbus since you’ve been here?
The countryside in central Ohio is more beautiful than I had expected, and riding in Pelotonia was a great way to experience that. I had been to Columbus before, but it usually went like this: arrive at an airport, check into a hotel, give a talk, go back to the hotel and then go back to the airport. I hadn’t had a chance to really be in the country. So driving to our regional campuses or riding in Pelotonia, or just biking on the weekends around Columbus, has given me a better sense of the great beauty of this area. And I love the change of seasons.
What are your impressions of Ohio State students so far?
The reason I went into academics all those years ago was because I enjoyed teaching and working with students so much. We had a group of about three dozen students over to the house for dinner last week to chat about things. Events like that are real highlights for me.
I’m so impressed with our freshman class, in particular. They are one of the most outstanding classes of first-year students in Ohio State’s history. When I think about all they’ve accomplished already, even before the start of their college careers, it fills me with such hope for their ability to take their education and contribute in meaningful ways to the betterment of our society.
Access and affordability
As first-year classes have improved, it has become difficult for some students to gain admission. What do you say to alumni whose kids are not able to follow their path?
Well, the reality is, with such a high volume of applicants and such a highly qualified applicant pool, we simply can’t admit as many hard-working, successful students as we would like. Last fall, we had nearly 43,000 applications for only about 7,000 spots. At the end of the day, we work very hard to admit those students whom we think will be successful at a large and competitive research university.
For the many qualified students who aren’t admitted, there are many other paths they can take to become Ohio State students. Our regional campuses offer open admissions for all Ohio residents and provide strong academic programs in smaller class environments.
We also have a partnership with Columbus State Community College, the Preferred Pathway Program, that makes it easier to transfer here. And there are other programs like it — our Pipeline to Medical Colleges Initiative, the Young Scholars Program and ACCESS Collaborative — that demonstrate our commitment to making higher education accessible.
I know the benefits of such programs personally: I began my undergraduate studies a half mile from home at Sacramento City College before transferring to Stanford.
Can Ohio State continue to improve its academic profile while still committing to access and affordability?
The great mission of every public university is to be outstanding and inclusive. That is the Holy Grail for us. I believe these initiatives go hand-in-hand — improving access and affordability while also raising our academic profile. Doing one without the other is like playing only half a football game. Being excellent because you exclude is not acceptable for a land-grant institution.
Talk a little about the university’s Discovery Themes, or strategic areas of focus, and why you think it’s important for Ohio State to place special emphasis on them.
Part of the reason we exist is to elevate the quality of life in society broadly. The Discovery Themes are a way for us to focus on some of the biggest issues that face us as people — energy and the environment, food production and security, and health and wellness. These themes take the strengths we have in a variety of areas and focus them on the largest problems facing humanity.
Ohio State will be recruiting and adding new faculty to support the Discovery Themes effort. How will new faculty help us achieve success in these and other areas?
We have a great opportunity to recruit several hundred new faculty over the next decade. Because we are strategically focusing on the Discovery Themes, we can recruit faculty who will help advance our work in these areas even faster. We’re beginning with data analytics. We’re already outstanding in this field, but we’re bringing some of the best minds in the world to come and work with us here. We’ll use that as a really foundational piece of our Discovery Themes.
Ohio State and medicine
How does your background as a medical doctor influence how you will lead a university?
Our life history helps shape how we like to do things. I was trained as a microsurgeon, so I have an attention to detail and precision that is important to me. I was trained in a data-based method, where you studied things to learn how to do them and then made your decisions based on what you learned. I learned that there are consequences to being right, as well as consequences when you are incorrect. I was trained in a way where you interact with people as human beings and you take them as they are. You work with them to move forward. All of those things are important to me on a daily basis.
What role should a medical center play in the life of a large, public land-grant institution like Ohio State?
We do three things at our medical center. We treat patients, we educate students and we conduct world-changing research. The university is particularly important in educating tomorrow’s leaders today and in developing new knowledge that creates new solutions for tomorrow. Colleges all across Ohio State are doing this in many ways. I think we’re all focused on education and research, and that work gets applied at the medical center through patient treatment.
With the opening of the new James Cancer Hospital, how do you feel we are positioned to make major strides in the fight to end cancer?
We have wonderful people on faculty and staff in oncology and, therefore, in the fight against cancer, a ubiquitous and devastating disease. And the James gives us a world-class facility in which to treat patients, work with families and conduct research to get answers to the questions that puzzle us. Also, the James, as part of our university, is a great place for educating that next group of leaders, for training not only medical students and interns and residents, but also nurses and pharmacists and laboratory researchers. So the entire enterprise that goes into this fight is right there at the new James. To have a quality place like this makes it that much easier to make the discoveries that will help advance this fight.
How meaningful is it to have a built-in fundraising arm like Pelotonia here that provides not only funding, but also keeps this fight top of mind?
Pelotonia does several things. One, it’s a really exciting fundraising opportunity. I enjoyed riding in it this past year and look forward to riding again this year. But it also brings people together and allows thousands of people to get together and do something to be a part of this fight. I think that is an important thing because we all get a chance to participate in fighting against cancer in one way or another; whether you are a rider, virtual rider or volunteer, we can all participate and know that as we become more successful, cancer is less successful. I’ve never seen a more broad-based, community-focused fundraising effort.
Looking back and thinking forward
You’ve often talked about your father and the role that he played in shaping who you are. What kind of man was he, and what are the strongest lessons you learned from him?
Both of my parents were very strong influences on me. My father was a real football star. When I was growing up, we had photographs of him at home from the years he played at Morgan State. So, from an early age, I had the concept of someone who was the captain of a national championship team. And he wore jersey No. 1, which was not the normal number for his position; he was a lineman. But his position was special enough that he got that number. He had a presence.
After college, there was no professional football option for him in the 1930s as an African American. If he had played, he would have been in a segregated African American league. Instead, he went to medical school and then practiced medicine until he was 99 years old. He was practicing medicine right up until he passed away. He was still seeing patients at his home. So he had a real work ethic and a real athletic, “take-care-of-yourself” ethic. He had a Nautilus weight machine in the house that he got when he was in his mid-90s. I’ve told the story before that I went for a visit one time and they’d gotten rid of the bedroom furniture in the room where I used to take a nap, and he was in there doing reps. He and my mother both swam nearly every day until they were in their 90s.
So, I had that dual focus of first, taking care of yourself physically and mentally, and second, that working is a privilege.
Both of my parents went to college; they met at Morgan State. It was unusual for both of them, but particularly unusual for my mother, to be a college graduate in the 1930s. So our family also had a strong focus on college.
My mother went from living in Ohio to attending Morgan State and working as the dean’s secretary, while my father was captain of the football team. When my mother was preparing for college, she knew it was going to cost her $65 to get a bus ticket from Youngstown to Baltimore and to pay her room, board and tuition for a quarter. She was a lifeguard, so she worked for 13 weeks one summer, making a dollar a day, and she didn’t spend a penny. At the end of the summer, she had $65, which was enough to get her on campus. Then she had no money, so she got her job as the dean’s secretary to support herself through school. She knew the value of a dollar, and we learned that growing up.
Where do you want Ohio State to be in five years?
I’d love for us to be even more effective and efficient. I want to see our graduation rates continue to climb and see the time it takes to earn a degree at Ohio State become shorter, because that will help our affordability. Our place among the pre-eminent universities in the world has grown, and I want to see it continue to grow. I think the quality and availability of health services that we provide will continue to make a real impact in central Ohio and beyond.
We have to make sure that we maintain the connectedness we have with our alumni. The real love the Buckeye family feels for its university, I want to make sure we continue to expand that. It’s an important element to be sure.
Internationally, we must continue to have the allure that we have exhibited to people coming from all over the world to study here and continue to increase the incredible diversity of our faculty from all over the world and from some of the top institutions. All of this contributes to being a more impactful, more outstanding university every day.
The alumni community
How would you like to see alumni involved in the life of the university?
To be honest, all of us just being the best citizens we can be, taking what we learned at Ohio State and applying it to the betterment of the community in innumerable ways, that’s the core of why we are here. Also, every gift makes a difference because of the connectivity it represents. We’re proud of our donors who are fortunate enough to make large gifts, but we also appreciate gifts of $5 or $10 that can help us take better care of our students. So there are a variety of ways our alumni can use what they gained at The Ohio State University to make our campuses and their own communities better. That’s good for all of us, and I love seeing it happen.
What would alumni be surprised to know about Michael Drake?
I think of myself as a person, but many times, I meet people and find they think of me as someone in a position. I’m the same as everyone else. I do this because it is a great privilege and blessing, and it is something that I get to do with other people — with the entire Buckeye community. The satisfaction and joy and pride I get is in how we do it together.