A closer look at new Ohio State president Michael Drake

UC Irvine

You probably know the basics about the hire of former UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake as Ohio State's new president. We take a closer look at his chancellorship.

By now, you've probably heard that Ohio State has selected their new president, Michael Drake of UC Irvine, to replace the beloved Gordon Gee. Now that we've all had a chance to go over the basics, it may be illuminating to look a little closer at Drake's tenure, at both his successes, and what that might mean for Ohio State, and his controversies.

One of our intrepid readers tipped us off about the story of Erwin Chermerinky, which might have been the most tumultuous and controversial decision in Drake's academic management career. Here are the basics:

UC Irvine established a brand new law school in 2007, and needed to find a dean to lead the department. The school had decided on Erwin Chermerinky, a professor at Duke who had built a distinguished career for himself, as that candidate. On paper, it seemed like a very solid choice. Chermerinky had won a 'Teacher of the Year' award at Duke, and had taught law at USC, UCLA and DePaul previously, specializing in First Amendment issues, civil rights and liberties, constitutional law and appellate litigation. He's even a Big Ten guy, having received his BA from Northwestern, so he must have been great, right? The school thought so anyway, and extended an offer to him on September 4th, 2007.

Chermerinky is also politically a liberal, and a pretty substantial one at that. He's one of the attorneys representing Guantanamo Bay detainees, and his political views on major cases run the gamut for what might traditionally be considered left (i.e pro-gun control, pro-affirmative action, pro-gay marriage, etc).  This might be what spooked Michael Drake, who then canceled the job offer. 

From the LA Times:

Erwin Chemerinsky, a well-known liberal expert on constitutional law, said he had signed a contract Sept. 4, only to be told Tuesday by Chancellor Michael V. Drake that Drake was voiding their deal because Chemerinsky was too liberal and the university had underestimated "conservatives out to get me."

Later Wednesday, however, Drake said there had been no outside pressure and that he had decided to reject Chemerinsky, now of Duke University and formerly of USC, because he felt the law professor's commentaries were "polarizing" and would not serve the interests of California's first new public law school in 40 years.

Drake might have been worried that hiring a potentially politically polarizing faculty member could be dangerous for a new law school, and could become a legitimate PR problem. However, the public reaction was pretty soundly against Drake's decision. Again, from the Times:

Douglas W. Kmiec, a prominent conservative constitutional law professor at Pepperdine Law School in Malibu, called the development "a tremendous setback for UC Irvine. It is a profound mistake in my judgment to have obtained the services of one of the most respected, most talented teachers of the Constitution in the United States and to turn him away on the specious ground that he is too liberal or too progressive. That is a betrayal of everything a law school should stand for."

Critiques came from outside the legal community as well. In fact, the scandal attracted the attention of no less than the New York Times, which attacked the decision in an editorial:

A law school would be mighty fortunate to have Erwin Chemerinsky, a distinguished Duke Law School professor, as its dean. The University of California, Irvine, realized this when it asked him to head up its new law school. This week, however, it rescinded the offer, evidently because of his political views. It's a disgraceful decision. The University of California system should admit its mistake and, with apologies, extend the offer again.

Drake said that he made the decision on his own, rather than formally asking the regents. One potential wrinkle in the case is the possible influence of Donald Bren, a wealthy real estate developer in Southern California who donated $20 million towards the founding of the law school. Bren is also a staunch Republican. Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago, speculated that Bren might have pressured Drake, a charge that both Drake and Bren have adamantly denied:

Some colleagues speculate that Irvine hoped to get more donations from Donald Bren, the real estate developer who endowed the Law School and who is also a major donor to the Republican Party .  Whether Mr. Bren played any role in this is something that perhaps the newspapers which investigate this story may unearth.   Even if financial gain was the motive, the University, I suspect, has miscalculated the costs and benefits of its misconduct, since the reputational damage the school will now incur is likely to be quite substantial.

Nixing the hire of an academic for political reasons, or rescinding a hire after you've extended it, are both great ways to make sure that your school doesn't attract quality academic talent, a fact that UC Irvine quickly realized. On September 17th, the university decided to hire Chemerinsky after all, and he continues to head the department to this day.

Does this story mean that Michael Drake is not a good university leader, or wouldn't do a good job at Ohio State? No, at least not necessarily. Not many chancellors/presidents are tasked with creating an entirely new school out of nothing, and in a politically-charged environment, missteps are possible. If Drake actually did attempt to change a hire out of direct fear of reprisal from a donor or for political reasons, it would be a cause for major concern, but there isn't direct evidence that this happened. At best though, the hiring process for a new law school leader was clumsily handled, and could be an even bigger problem if it happened at a larger institution like Ohio State.

Drake's career has lots of bright spots, too, however. For those who are concerned about what this hire might mean for the athletic department, it's helpful to know that despite overseeing a relatively smaller scalewise program, Drake won't be flying in blind. Drake's served on the NCAA Board of Directors, representing the Big West conference.  It's clear that Drake won't approach the OSU athletic industrial complex as a disinterested observer.

Drake's background in medicine and medical administration should be a great fit for a university with a research powerhouse of a hospital complex, and his ability to continue to raise funds in the face of challenging local political conditions will be very applicable to Ohio State. Drake's shown that he's willing to go the extra mile for that fundraising hustle –sometimes literally, like in this case. While the charismatic shoes of Gordon Gee are awfully hard to fill, Drake did find a way to get Jamie Foxx and Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston to get involved in the universit'sy fundraising, so he can't be totally empty in the charisma department.

And if nothing else, he has some serious bow tie game himself. That's got to count for something.

We remain cautiously optimistic about Drake's hire on the backing of those who selected him and look forward to watching his tenure in Columbus unfold.

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