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Haunted by Scandal, UC Irvine Looks to a Man of Ethics

As the new chancellor, Drake is winning many over. He can emerge as a hero -- or as a leader who missed the chance to make things right.

March 19, 2006|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Four months after he took the helm at UC Irvine, Chancellor Michael V. Drake stood before an auditorium packed with doctors and nurses. He was addressing the UCI Medical Center staff for the first time since front-page headlines had revealed serious problems there, problems bigger than most university leaders face in their entire careers.

Drake was angry. He got right to the point.

"I haven't liked any of this these past few days," he said. "I didn't like it one bit."

He made it clear that he wanted answers, not excuses, and that he was establishing a task force to investigate. But he was not there just to chastise. He told them how much he appreciated their hard work, something he has done at almost every opportunity. He conveyed the same sentiments when he spoke to the rest of the faculty.

These were defining moments for a rookie chancellor, a campus outsider and an ophthalmologist rather than the usual PhD, a man whose appointment was met with skepticism from faculty.

"He was amazingly composed that day, almost inspirational," said chemistry professor Kenneth C. Janda, chairman of the Academic Senate. "He just said that we've got a job to do, and let's roll up the sleeves and get it done."

Drake was busy getting to know the community and the campus and laying out his plans when The Times reported in November that more than 30 patients on the university hospital's liver transplant waiting list died in 2004 and 2005, even as the Orange hospital turned down scores of organs that might have saved some of them.

"We were having a wonderful time all summer and fall," Drake said. "Then the job changed."

More problems came to light, including shortcomings in the hospital's bone marrow and kidney transplant programs. Anesthesiologists complained of patient safety issues. Cardiologists raised concerns about the credentials of the division's chief and associate chief. It all added up to another strike against a hospital that has faced its share of scandal in the last decade -- including fertility doctors who stole eggs and embryos and a willed-body program that sold and lost donated body parts.

The campus desperately needed a problem-solver and a motivator, perhaps even a savior. Overnight, being an outsider became an advantage. And being a physician worked in his favor.

In those first few days of crisis, Drake so thoroughly won over the faculty and community that expectations soared. He can emerge as a hero -- or as a leader who missed the opportunity to finally clean things up.

Those who know Drake, 55, say no one is better qualified to lead UC Irvine right now.

"Michael's handled every job that wasn't easy," said Dr. James O'Donnell, Drake's mentor and a professor emeritus of ophthalmology at UC San Francisco. "He's a do-the-right-thing guy. You can't fake it. It's just straight-out real."

When Drake reviews his life, he points to what he calls "bonding subconscious experiences" that have shaped who he is.

His 92-year-old father, who recently retired as a physician, taught him to respect medicine and to love healing.

As a child, Drake suffered from severe asthma. He would wake up gasping for air in the middle of the night and stand outside his parents' room, sometimes for half an hour, praying that the asthma would fade.

Drake hated to awaken his father. "But as much as I was reluctant to disturb him, he was always happy to get up, happy to help." They would go to the kitchen where his father would inject him with epinephrine. In minutes, Drake could breathe again. It was an early lesson in the power of medicine.

Drake followed his father and brother to medical school. He started at community college, then went to Stanford and finally to UC San Francisco for his medical degree.

His former colleagues and bosses say he is a natural leader.

O'Donnell and others described him as thoughtful, articulate, decisive, honest and forceful -- qualities that elevated him, almost immediately upon completing his residency, into administrative positions at UC San Francisco, where he was appointed senior associate dean for admissions.

When the University of California's Board of Regents abolished affirmative action, prompting wholesale changes in admission criteria, Drake saw the big picture, said Dr. Haile T. Debas, a former dean and interim chancellor at UC San Francisco. "What amazed me was how he was able to see beyond the immediate issue, which was race and ethnicity," said Debas, whom Drake appointed to the liver transplant task force. "He saw that's not what we should be fighting about. We should be fighting for opportunity. Just changing the issue made an incredible change."

Debas credited Drake with not only increasing the diversity of medical students in the UC system, but with pushing those students to help fill California's pressing medical needs -- serving Latinos, blacks and the poor.

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