It’s not easy being a leader.
Each day you’re confronted with crucial decisions that impact the lives of others. You are the head of a united ideal—a singular face in a diverse and often multicultural community. People will look up to you. Others will denigrate you. You will be vilified, misunderstood, and even forgotten. But more importantly, you are the tangible force that provides direction. You are responsible for baring the weight of others, lifting up those who are lost in the trenches.
Dr. Michael V. Drake embodies many qualities of what makes a strong leader: passion, kindness, intelligence, approachability, and of course, a solid taste in music. He’s a medical doctor who mimics Prince on guitar. He is on the board of the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and taught ophthalmology at UCSF for years. He came of age in the thick of the civil rights movement, and found higher education despite living in a racially tumultuous time in our nation’s history. It’s not easy filling the shoes of a gregarious, bow-tied icon, nor should it be, but in the two years as president of The Ohio State University, Dr. Drake’s leadership has surely given his predecessor a sigh of relief.
Interviewing the president of one of the largest universities in the country comes with its inherent difficulties. It’s not that Dr. Drake is not an intimidating man—his thin wireframe glasses and warm smile beg the contrary—but one can only wonder what goes through the mind of a person delegated with so much responsibility.
Where do even you start?
Well—why not from the beginning?
Tell me about a young Michael Drake. I know that you spent a lot of time in Sacramento and San Francisco after moving from New Jersey.
Growing up, I had two much older siblings and a younger brother. Once we decided to move, it was really just my younger brother, mother, father and myself. I’d say that I was just living a typical 1960s American life.
Do you see any parallels from that time to the world we are living in today?
I would say one thing that was true about the California that we moved to was that it was a land of the future. The country was on a real positive trajectory. You could really feel that every year was getting better than the year before. It was a very optimistic time in our country. I could see differences in race relations in the ongoing discourse of civil rights. It was normal daily news for us then, and it seemed like every year things were getting better—people were working together more, and barriers were coming down. I was very optimistic in those years, and the world seemed to reward that optimism. All that positivity, which was so inspiring, was countered: the presidential assassination, which we thought was not fathomable, there was unrest in the streets, the Vietnam War happened. So we saw things go in such a wonderful direction, and then the difficult downturn. But we got through that, making us an even stronger country.
What role has music played in your life, and how has it shaped the person you are today, and how did it add to the discourse of to the time you grew up?
There was a lot of uplifting positive music in the 60’s. Because of the church connections in the civil rights movement and the music that played in church, music from the church was inextricably intertwined. Popular music of the day had teenage freedom and growth, but then there were songs about change and politics. All of these things were happening on a macro scale, and music was always a part of those politics. Music was a part of many people describing those years. My mother loved singing. We had a piano in the living room. There was always music around the house. We had a lot of progressive jazz in the house, especially Miles Davis.
Whenever I needed to prepare for a big exam in college, I always put on Kind of Blue. It always helped me concentrate.
Well, it’s certainly one of those top 10 albums to take onto a desert island. That is for sure. I heard that record probably 1,000 times from 10 to 12 years old. Music and art can connect us all from different points of view and different stages in life. There are lots of things that can bring us joy and comfort. That’s an amazing thing. It’s nice to be connected to the larger human family in that way.
Do you have any shoutouts to your favorite local band?
I’d have to say the Bill Who Band at Shadowbox Live. Wonderful people, wonderful appreciate of music. They are a fantastic part of our community.
Who did you idolize when you were growing up?
I looked up to my parents. They were both very hard working. They came up through the depression and made their way forward. They were educated and set a great standard for me, so I was very fortunate there. My father was a medical doctor and a football champion, captain of a national championship team. He was always a paragon of physical health and an active contributor to the community. My mother was a social worker and an English teacher—also a great contributor to the community. She had self-confidence. I had support. Of course, there was also the heroes of our day: John Kennedy, John Glenn, and Martin Luther King. I could see as a child how they were changing their world. The world was different after them as it was before them. Those are the people who showed us what was possible. From the heart, or from faith, or from science,éß you can really make the world a different and better place.
How did your college experience shape you?
Well, I met my wife, so that helped. [laughs] I knew I was going to go to medical school, so college never changed that. I began at a community college about a half a mile from my house. I transferred from there to a larger college, and that transfer was reflective of other things that were really happening in the world. It was extraordinarily unusual for someone like me to attend a college. Things were changing in the world. Just in that year or two, there were opportunities available to me that weren’t afforded to those before me. I was in a wave of African American students who had the opportunity to attend a broader range of colleges, and I felt that absolutely, acutely. It was entirely clear to me everyday that I was somewhere that I couldn’t have been two or three years prior. College is a place that is connected to the future, so I had the idea that I could do anything. My college experience really helped validate that.
What words of advice would you give to high school students who are apprehensive about committing to college right after graduation—a time where uncertainty about the future is at an all time high?
I don’t expect people to come here knowing what they need or want. I expect them to come here to want to grow and to follow their passions to a great future. We see the collegiate experience as one where we nurture that development from late adolescence to adulthood. I believe that it is our responsibility is to do what we can to inspire, empower and enable the whole person to develop, and to prepare you to move onto your future. Of course, if you have a plan that is terrific. But I would hope that most of those plans could be improved upon, or modified, as you grow. We want to be a pathway to the future.
We are living in a world when young people are faced with acts of inexplicable violence. Lately, these harsh realities have hit extremely close to home. What words of encouragement would you give students and faculty members who are feeling scared, dejected, or forgotten, and how can we move forward as a united community?
There are these awful things that happen, this senseless violence. We are not immune to it. We are not unique. But we have to figure out how to cope with it, and move forward in the face of these things. When we are feeling the threat and the pressure from all of these things surrounding us, we should reach out to our friends, classmates, and family members, and pull them a little closer to make sure that none of us have to face these things alone. We have the benefit of having a wonderful community support of loving people. Even in the wake of the tragedy, it was voided by the support and steadfastness and lovingness of our community. That helped us get through it, and it will sustain us moving forward.
Thank you for that. I am sure your words and support have helped to comfort the OSU community.
The Buckeye Nation Community has a level of cohesiveness and support that I think is unmatched. We should all be thanking each other.
Tell me about your pet projects. What is one thing you would like to accomplish at your time here in at OSU?
Most of my projects, most of the things I think about are focused on the student experience—helping us to be better nurturers, educators, and inspirers for our students. Asking me for a pet project is like asking me which of my children is my favorite; it’s so hard to choose. There are several things that we are doing that fit in the affordability excellence triad.
It’s been a watershed year for OSU in 2016. We’ve heard of groundbreaking research that has been done in the past year, acetaminophen linked to empathy loss, neurological and cancer research. What exciting things in science does OSU have in store for 2017?
There are three areas that we are very excited about. One, as you mentioned, is our biomedical and health science research continues to be world leading. We are making great headway on new drugs and therapies for cancer and other diseases. We also have the Byrd Polar Research Institute. We are doing incredible work on the science of climate change there— really critical issues for the entire planet. You mentioned knowledge as a commodity, and how information is important. We are trying to use that to make us better stewards of our planet. However, we can’t forget how we also have wonderful things happening in the humanities and creative arts. We are studying people and culture—how people live and have lived is really important. We are very excited about the people who are pushing towards the understanding of ourselves, and our ability to envision a better future.
It is fair to say that OSU is a part of the international community—can you extrapolate on how your institution captures the global community’s eye?
Our main product on campus is knowledge—either knowledge created by the research of our faculty or knowledge transmitted to our students through teaching. That is our business, the business of knowledge. We are living in a world where the barriers of knowledge really don’t exist anymore. Information travels around the world instantaneously. If we are going to be the forefront of creating and sharing knowledge, we have to be connected with the world. We have students, faculty, and staff from all parts of that world. There are those who come here to live with us or just to study for a small period of time. Woven in our normal fabric are people from all parts of the world, and that is a big part of the richness that makes us such a special community. It’s really a part of who we are.
What excites you most about your position?
I have a great chance to work with students, faculty, and staff who are dedicated to doing good in the world. It is a great privilege to be at an institution that is focused on doing positive things across the board, from arts, medicine, and science, to law and engineering. We have people really working on improving the quality of life and making it more enjoyable, and that’s a great privilege.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
It gets really busy, but I don’t really spend much time thinking about things like that. That, to me, would be wringing hands. When I start to feel like that I just roll my sleeves up a little more. There are moments of frustrations, of course, but I try to press through those things.
What advice do you have for the incoming freshman of 2017?
The opportunities in front of you are limitless. It is only your own imagination and application of your talents that will determine where you go, and that is a really beautiful and magical thing.