From the firing of a band director to the handling of a possible terrorist attack, the OSU president is no stranger to challenges, and civic leaders say his grades are improving.
On a late November morning, Ohio State University president Michael Drake huddled in a corner of his Bricker Hall office with New York-based author Jon Derek Croteau, chatting about what it's like to lead an institution as enormous, complex and high-profile as Ohio State. They had a lot to discuss.
Croteau requested the interview as part of his research for a book about university presidents. Drake was in a good mood. The Buckeyes had defeated their arch rival, Michigan, two days earlier in front of a massive television audience. And he had other reasons to be happy, too. After a rough start, Drake seemed to have found his groove in Columbus, winning over skeptics with his wit, intelligence and thoughtful, careful leadership. It hadn't always been that way. A year earlier, many civic insiders wondered if he had the vision, the people skills and the personality to succeed in one of the toughest jobs in the city.
The author asked Drake about the difference between management and leadership. Drake talked about a “lack of guideposts” in leadership. When you head an organization like Ohio State, Drake said, expect the unexpected. Over his two and a half years in Columbus, Drake has faced his share of surprises, including a scandal that pitted him against one of the university's most beloved institutions, the death of a student in the unsanctioned Mirror Lake plunge and a disgruntled former employee who wreaked havoc at the Wexner Center for the Arts.
“Things happen that are unpredictable,” Drake told Croteau. “We have information coming from a variety of directions, and it's incomplete and not necessarily accurate. And when you're in a leadership position, you're not following anyone. People are following you, so your decisions have some consequence.”
Then, as if on cue, Drake's chief of staff Katie Hall interrupted the interview. “I need you now,” she told the president in an urgent but calm voice. Drake asked Croteau to sit tight as he stepped outside the door, where Hall and provost Bruce McPheron awaited. Their news was jolting: a report of an active shooter on campus. It was, in this day and age, the type of horrifying scenario that Drake feared the most.
The leadership conversation would have to wait. Now was the time to put words into action. With the whole campus on lockdown, Drake set up a command center at Bricker Hall and connected with his public safety team via a conference call. A university police officer on the scene had taken quick action, firing upon and killing the attacker who refused to stand down. In a little more than an hour after receiving the shocking news, Drake was checking on the victims and addressing the media. The university's response and his calm and clear-headed actions received praise and appreciation as the story broke nationwide.
The public reaction was quite different just a couple of years earlier, when Drake faced criticism for his firing of OSU Marching Band director Jonathan Waters. Some say Drake has evolved and grown into his role as the leader of one of the nation's largest universities. Others say Columbus has slowly come around and started to appreciate Drake for who he is, and not how he compares to his gregarious predecessor, Gordon Gee. Either way, new tests lurk behind the unseen corners of this massive operation every day Drake holds the office.
The 66-year-old Drake faces a different kind of challenge on a Saturday afternoon in late October. He stands on a stage in the middle of a gymnasium in the RPAC building, Ohio State's gleaming $140 million student recreation palace. It's game day in Columbus, and a sea of scarlet and gray fills the gym, the site of the university's Pregame Huddle tailgate party. In about 90 minutes, Ohio State will square off against Northwestern. And despite the festive environment—balloons, music, an open bar, an impressive catering spread, the Ohio State Men's Glee Club—the mood is a bit glum beneath the surface. The week before, the Buckeyes lost a squeaker to Penn State, spoiling the dream of an undefeated season.
Dressed in khakis, a red sweater and a red baseball hat, Drake tries to lift the spirits of the nearly 700 people at the party, which honors members of the university's President's Club, donors who've given at least $3,000 to Ohio State. “This is a great day to begin a great winning streak,” he says, his image projected onto a giant overhead screen. “We're going to start it today and go through the rest of this year and into next year.” Though the remark sounds boastful, Drake has the mannerisms of a cerebral, sweatered professor in front of a classroom. It's up to the next speaker, athletic director Gene Smith, an ex-jock, to energize the crowd. “We have a bad taste in our mouths,” Smith says. “We're not used to this, and we don't want to get used to this. We don't like where we are. So we're going to change it.” The difference is palpable.
With kickoff approaching, Drake's two-person security team escorts him to Ohio Stadium across the street. He enters through a gate on the south end and joins the incongruous pregame throng on the sidelines: cheerleaders, cameramen, athletic recruits, band members, Brutus Buckeye, former OSU football coach John Cooper and Alice Magoto, Miss Ohio 2016, wearing her official sash over a No. 2 Buckeyes jersey. Drake pauses in front of the South Stands, the soon-to-be rowdy student section, surveying the spectacle. Despite his low-key manner, he's a big football fan; his father played at Morgan State University, and Drake had Stanford season tickets for many years when he lived in California. How does Ohio State football compare with other schools? “The level of intensity is unlike anything else,” he says, soaking it in.
The same can be said about his high-profile and challenging job. As the president of Ohio State, Drake oversees what's essentially a medium-sized city: 60,000 students, 35,000 full-time employees, 15 colleges, a world-class contemporary art museum, one of the most lucrative athletic departments in the country and a sprawling $3.1 billion medical center (which generates half of the university's revenue). Drake also must interact with the university's many constituencies: students, faculty, alumni, donors, elected officials, sports fans, Columbus civic leaders. To do the job right, an Ohio State president needs to be a scholar, a diplomat, a salesman, an ambassador, a politician, a lobbyist and a CEO. “It's a much more complicated, demanding institution than in the past,” says Alex Shumate, the chairman of the Ohio State Board of Trustees.
The size, scale and influence of the university has led some to label the Ohio State president as the second most powerful public employee in the state. That might be an exaggeration, but no one doubts the importance of the office, with more people in Ohio and around the country looking to the university for leadership in research, athletics, teaching, fundraising, medicine and technology.
“I used to joke with people that the wonderful thing about Ohio State is when you can get the campus aligned in a certain direction, it can literally change the world,” says Bill Shkurti, the former vice president for business and finance at Ohio State. “They have the resources to do it. The challenge is getting all the various tribes in the university on the same page and pulling in the same direction. So it's the president's job to lead that direction.”
That's easier said than done. In such a high-stakes, demanding job, pitfalls are everywhere, and Drake has faced his share. Even on game day, it turns out. Back at Ohio Stadium, Drake shuttles between the sidelines, where he participates in several on-the-field tributes, and the University Suite, where he entertains guests, including Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and former Gov. Bob Taft. Drake follows a highly regimented schedule on game days, and one misstep can throw everything off. After dropping by the suite of longtime Columbus civic leader Jack Kessler, Drake hits a snag: He needs to do a halftime radio interview, but the elevators to the press box are locked down. Stadium workers are holding the elevators for the assistant coaches, who will use them in a few minutes to move from the coaches' box to the locker rooms for some crucial halftime strategizing.
Drake is forced to improvise. He and his entourage take a different elevator to C deck and race up seven flights of stairs to the top of the stadium, making it to the interview on time (though huffing and puffing). Chalk it up as another lesson in the continuing education of Michael Drake.
Drake arrived in Columbus after spending nine years as the chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, ranked as one of the top-10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. He also has a strong medical background, one of the top criteria of the 18-member OSU presidential search committee that chose him, reflecting the growing importance of Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, a critical revenue source for the university as state support for higher education diminishes. Drake, an ophthalmologist, spent five years as vice president for health affairs for the University of California system, directing research and education for 15 health sciences schools on seven campuses.
Yet Drake did have some holes in his resume. In California, he answered to Janet Napolitano, the president of the University of California system. The Ohio State presidency is more independent, requiring Drake—OSU's first African-American president—to take on responsibilities he didn't have at Irvine. “We're a big, complicated place,” says Kessler, a former chairman of the Ohio State Board of Trustees. “He wasn't used to having a board. He wasn't used to legislators. He didn't have to do that in his previous job.”
In many ways, Drake's predecessor, Gee, set the OSU presidential template with his energy, charisma and affability. “There's no way you can avoid the comparisons with the force of nature that Gordon was and is,” says Doug Kridler, the CEO of the Columbus Foundation. For a city used to Gee's kinetic leadership, Drake's low-key, deliberative approach was something of a shock. “He's sort of cool, sort of reserved,” says a former Ohio State insider. “He can kind of come off standoffish. I don't think that he ultimately is, but he's not a slap-you-on-the-back-a-few-minutes-after-he-meets-you kind of guy.”
Civic insiders began to complain about Drake's lack of civic engagement. They worried he wasn't building relationships or using his position at Ohio State to wield influence in the city or at the Statehouse. Community leaders speculated he might be a short-timer, that he was the wrong person for the job, even though the OSU board continued to give him good reviews. “People have commonly referred to him as Holbrook 2.0,” a civic leader told Columbus Monthly a year ago, referring to Karen Holbrook, Gee's predecessor, whose tenure never seemed to recover from her controversial decision to crack down on the university's tailgating scene (rightfully, it turned out).
Like Holbrook, Drake found himself taking on a beloved Ohio State tradition. Less than a month after assuming the office, he fired Waters after a university investigation uncovered a culture of sexual harassment within the band. The Waters firing caused an uproar within both the university and the larger legion of loyal TBDBITL fans as it spilled into the courts, with Waters unsuccessfully suing the university. The former Ohio State insider says the scandal isolated Drake, who was kept from doing many public events because his staff feared harassment from Waters' supporters. “They weren't really letting people get a sense for who he was because they just had him in the bunker,” the former OSU insider says. Kessler says the controversy “really threw [Drake] off his game for longer than we realized.”
One of the ironies of the marching band scandal is this: Drake is a musician himself. He grew up in Sacramento, where he worked at the original Tower Records and took part in the Bay Area's thriving music scene of the '60s and '70s, seeing in person such legendary acts as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, James Brown and Miles Davis. He even attended the infamous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969. (Drake keeps an Altamont concert poster in his office.)
That more fun-loving side of his personality has emerged more frequently over the past year. During the spring semester, Drake co-taught a class about music and the civil rights movement with Alan Michaels, the dean of the Moritz College of Law.
He's even appeared on stage a time or two, with the CEO super group Drake formed with fellow Columbus community leaders Nick Akins of AEP and George Barrett of Cardinal Health.
In early October, the trio—all members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame board of directors—performs with BillWho?, the Shadowbox Live house band. “Now it's time for the reason you're all here, to see these exceptional CEOs rock it out on stage,” announces Shadowbox's Stacie Boord before leading the group through its first number, a rousing rendition of U2's “Desire.” During the nearly-one-hour performance, Drake plays rhythm guitar, while Akins pounds the drums and Barrett switches between guitar and keyboards.
Drake is stoic and focused on stage, much like his personality off of it, conceding the spotlight to others, including Barrett, a classically trained vocalist who sings lead on James Taylor's “Fire and Rain” and the Eagles' “Take it Easy.” But Drake doesn't go unnoticed. The event—sponsored by the Columbus Partnership, the alliance of the top business leaders in Central Ohio—is filled with heavy hitters, several of whom act like starry-eyed fans as they congratulate Drake after the show. Though he's not the front man on stage, the band was Drake's idea. In Southern California, he and other community leaders formed a similar group to perform at fundraisers and boost community goodwill. “It's made him more accessible, and certainly there's a cool factor to playing in a rock band,” says Boord, who helped plan and organize the event.
Indeed, Drake's coolness has started to grow on folks around Columbus in recent months. Civic leaders are now singing his praises. “He's totally turned the corner,” says Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer, also a member of the Ohio State board. “He grew into the job,” says Kessler, the former OSU board chair. “He's a superstar,” says Shumate, the current board chair. “He'll go down in history as one of the best presidents at the Ohio State University,” says former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman.
“There are some leaders who never do get their sea legs and wash overboard, and Michael was not one of those,” adds Fischer. “He's got a very steady hand on an institution that just by its very nature, scale and size is always going to be sailing in very challenging waters.”
What changed? Drake, and the rest of Columbus, finally put the band controversy in the rearview mirror, for one thing. He recruited highly regarded lieutenants like provost Bruce McPheron and government affairs VP Blake Thompson, and has become more comfortable in the high-profile job and active in city affairs. While the CEO band showed Drake in a new light, he also started to pay more attention to politics and civic matters. He's met with more than 50 officials at the local, state and federal levels in just the past year and has participated in more than 500 community events, according to his November annual review.
In June, Columbus beat out 70 other communities to win the federal Smart City award, a prestigious honor that will allow the city to reinvent its transportation system. The federal government will contribute $40 million to the effort, while Central Ohio private and public institutions have pledged an additional $90 million, including $15 million from Ohio State. “We don't win Smart City without Michael Drake,” Fischer says.
The city, it appears, is no longer looking for Gee II. It's increasingly happy with Drake I. “Dr. Drake didn't waiver from his core fundamental beliefs,” Fischer says. “He wasn't distracted, and that was really, really important. He didn't get exacerbated. Perhaps he could have gotten frustrated with the collective all of us, whoever that would be, but he didn't. He's grounded as a leader and as an individual.” And it's hard to argue with the results: solid finances, record-setting fundraising, greater student diversity, the smartest freshman class in school history and important leadership positions with two prestigious national higher education groups—the American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the Association of American Universities. Citing those accomplishments and others, the OSU board awarded Drake a 2 percent raise in November, bringing his annual base salary to $832,320. (He also received a $204,000 performance bonus.)
What's more, community leaders have started to embrace Drake on his own terms. He's not a master politician like Gee, but Drake is charming in his own right. He's a perceptive, down-to-earth conversationalist with a dry, disarming sense of humor. If you meet him, as his admirers like to say, you can't help but like him. And more people have gotten to know him over the past year. “He's won over people,” Coleman says.
The former mayor met Drake early in his tenure. Back in the summer of 2014, the two avid cyclists went for a ride together on the Alum Creek bike path. Coleman suffered a wipeout, and Drake patched him up. They've been friends ever since. “I was his first patient in Columbus,” Coleman says with a laugh. He says he expected Drake's early critics to come around. “They didn't give him a chance to let him do his thing, and now that he's doing his thing, people are saying, ‘Oh, I get it.' ”
This fall, Columbus Monthly watched Drake “do his thing”—in addition to the concert and football game— shadowing him at two campus events (an award presentation and a faculty reception) and sitting in on two meetings in his office with university officials. Drake showed many sides. He was funny, joking about his age. “One-seventy,” he said, when asked the number of an upcoming high school reunion. He was sincere, hugging a tearful social work senior after awarding her $100,000 to fight food insecurity in Columbus. He was thoughtful, encouraging faculty members in the uncertain aftermath of the Nov. 8 election. He was strategic, urging his HR staffers and the leaders of his newly created Institute for Teaching and Learning to be “outcome-driven.” He was even whimsical, debating the proper Midwestern pronunciation of the word “vehicle.”
He also was cool under pressure. On Nov. 28—the Monday after Thanksgiving—an OSU student named Abdul Razak Ali Artan injured 11 people in a car and knife attack, one that could have been much worse if OSU police officer Alan Horujko didn't shoot and kill Artan, preventing him from causing more harm. It was a chaotic day, to say the least, with misinformation floating all over the place. The initial Buckeye Alert described Artan as an “active shooter,” though it turned out he didn't have a gun. There also were false reports of a second attacker.
Drake was the soothing face of the university during the crisis. He held two press conferences—an ad-hoc briefing outside the Wexner Medical Center moments after visiting the injured victims there, followed by a more formal one with a fleet of politicians alongside him later in the day. He chose his words carefully, letting others speculate as to the motives of Artan, a Somalia-born Muslim. “You have to be credible in that you have to be willing to say what you don't know,” Drake said in an interview with Columbus Monthly the day after the attack. “The balance is to try to give the information that will help people understand what's happened, but to not be inflammatory or confusing or incorrect.”
Drake also benefited during the lessons learned a year earlier from the active-shooter incident at the Wexner Center for the Arts, when a former security guard shot and spray-painted several pieces of art before killing himself. Drake and his team revamped the university's security protocols to improve communication after that attack. “I felt the response was too slow,” Drake says of the Wexner Center incident. His work paid off. This time, the university sent out its alert (“Active Shooter on Campus. Run Hide Fight”) three minutes after the initial report, a considerable improvement from a year earlier.
The university received kudos for its handling of the November incident, celebrated by everyone from Vice President Joe Biden to the Dispatch editorial page. But Drake plans to conduct his own analysis to see if any adjustments are needed. In his job, he knows the education never ends. “Every day I learn something,” he says.