A life of many firsts for the Ohio State president
After a rough start, Ohio State University president Michael Drake is winning over doubters with his intelligence, good humor and grace under pressure. Columbus Monthly's January cover story ("The Education of Michael Drake," available on newsstands now) details this turnaround, highlighting how Drake overcame the OSU Marching Band scandal and comparisons to his much-different predecessor, Gordon Gee, to become the big man on campus in Columbus.
And while the story of Drake's time in Columbus is a fascinating tale of progression, it's by no means the only interesting chapter in Drake's life and career. Here are a few significant moments in Drake's journey to Ohio State that we didn't explore in our cover story.
Like father, like son
Drake's career has been one of many firsts, including being named Ohio State's first African-American president in 2014. But he isn't the only pioneer in his family. He followed a path that, in many ways, was blazed by his father, Carl, a physician who practiced medicine until the day he died in 2012 at the age of 99. Drake's father also was an accomplished football player, a lineman who played both offense and defense and team captain for the powerhouse Morgan State University squads of the 1930s. "I grew up in a house where both physical and mental disciplines were normal," says Drake, who keeps in his office his father's 1934 Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship football trophy.
Even though he went into psychiatry (heading a state mental health clinic in Sacramento), Carl Drake remained a "country doctor who made house calls in his heart," says his son.
"When I was growing up, he had an office in the dining room," Drake recalls. "He would boil hypodermic needles on the stove at night and then see patients from the neighborhood after he got home from work."
The Chemerinksy affair
The OSU band scandal wasn't the first time Drake's leadership was put on trial. In 2007, Drake-then the chancellor for the University of California, Irvine-was at the center of a national uproar over free speech and academic independence, when he chose to rescind an offer he made to renowned legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky to serve as the first dean of UC Irvine's law school. The decision outraged academics across the country, who contended that Chemerinsky was being punished for his outspoken liberal views. The national media picked up the story, painting Drake in an unflattering light. "The University of California at Irvine clearly has misdirected its search efforts," declared Harper's magazine. "It has been looking for a law school dean. But what it really needs is a new chancellor."
With his crediblity in jeopardy, Drake reversed course. He reinstated his job offer to Chemerinsky and then apologized for his actions in a meeting attended by several hundred faculty members, according to a Los Angeles Times article. "I have learned a painful lesson. … I have to mend bridges damaged by my actions and work to build bridges to the future," Drake told faculty members. Some expected Drake to walk away from the meeting with a censure from faculty members. Instead, his mea culpa earned him rousing applause.
"I had to take responsibility for the outcome," Drake says. "And so I did what I could to take full responsibility for everybody involved and anything that happened. And I said, 'Here's what we're going to do to move forward.' " Drake's relationship with Chemerinsky recovered, and the pair even went on to teach a class together about music and civil rights, a precursor to the course Drake now teaches at Ohio State.
From M.D. to president
Early in his career, Drake didn't envision himself leading a university, largely because it was a path few other medical doctors have followed. Even today, the American Association of Universities says just one other physician leads one of its 62 member insitutions in the U.S. and Canada-Sam Stanley of Stony Brook University in New York. As a result, Drake's medical background provides him with a unique perspective. "An extraordinarily important part of medicine is compassion," Drake says. "If I think of my medical training, the things that seemed to be most useful to me in this role are to be able to bring compassion and understanding and maybe a sense of responsibility for making things better."
Drake's admirers say that side of him was on display in November 2015, when an Ohio State student died in the unsanctioned Mirror Lake plunge prior to the Michigan game. Drake rushed to be at the side of the student, Austin Singletary, whose identity wasn't known at the time, and held his hand as he died at the OSU Wexner Medical Center, according to two Ohio State sources. "He couldn't bear the fact that the young man would basically die alone," says one of the sources.
A guitarist and devoted music fan, Drake attended the Rolling Stones' infamous free concert at Altamont Speedway in northern California in 1969 while a student at Stanford University. "There had been fights all day unlike we'd ever experienced," Drake recalls. "You don't go to a rock concert or a music event and have people getting in fights or hitting each other with pool cues and things, which was happening all day that day." The violent climax of the show occurred when a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club stabbed and beat to death an 18-year-old man named Meredith Hunter while the Stones played "Under My Thumb." Drake was there for the incident, but he didn't see the tragic incident occur. He and his friends left the concert early. "It was like leaving in the sixth inning, and we learned like everybody else the next day what had actually happened," Drake says.