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Chancellor's admirers baffled by his decision on dean

September 14, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

When Michael V. Drake was plucked from relative obscurity to head UC Irvine two years ago, some faculty members wondered whether the tenderfoot chancellor was up to the job of running a sprawling campus with high expectations and a $1.4-billion budget.

Four months later, they got their answer.

Drake acted quickly when it was revealed that failures in the university hospital's liver transplant program had led to more than 30 patient deaths. He launched an investigation, tightened oversight and punished those responsible.

Doubters "were proven wrong," said Meredith Khachigian, a former University of California regent who served on the committee Drake formed to probe the liver transplant program. "He's extremely thoughtful and extremely intelligent. . . . I have nothing but respect and admiration for him."

Which makes Drake's current trial by fire all the more difficult to understand. "I'm kind of as confused as everybody else," Khachigian said. "What the heck happened?"

On Thursday, many who know and have worked with Drake were asking that in the wake of news that he hired -- and then essentially fired -- a prominent legal scholar as the first dean of UCI's new law school.

Erwin Chemerinsky, an outspoken liberal professor at Duke University who taught at USC for 21 years, says Drake voided his contract under pressure from conservative critics.

Drake, a 57-year-old African American, has championed diversity in student recruitment and helped launch a program to improve Latino healthcare. He is uniformly described as an extroverted, natural leader with a strong ethical compass.

"I know Michael Drake to be a person of the absolute highest integrity," said Michael Brown, chair of the UC Academic Senate and a nonvoting member of the UC Board of Regents. "I cannot believe him to be one to bow to any sort of political pressure, and I mean that with every fiber of my being. So when I look at this and it looks like someone has withdrawn an offer for political reasons, there has to be more to the story."

Drake was raised in Sacramento. His mother was a social worker and teacher, his father a psychiatrist who ran a neighborhood clinic in the family's living room. His rise to the top began at a community college. From there, he went on to graduate from Stanford and earn a medical degree from UC San Francisco.

Drake was UC's vice president for health affairs when he was named chancellor at UCI. His straightforward, public handling of the liver transplant program scandal earned him praise -- and set high expectations, which Drake had appeared to meet.

He proved to be an effective fundraiser. He got skeptical regents to approve UCI's long-desired law school. When Jewish students charged that Muslim students were sponsoring anti-Semitic events on campus, Drake stood up for constitutionally protected free speech.

The events that led Drake to dismiss Chemerinsky is "incongruous with his previous actions," said Martha Mecartney, a UCI professor and former chair of UCI's Academic Senate. "Drake is a strong advocate of free speech. . . . I'm at a loss for words."

Drake denies that anyone pressured him to dump Chemerinsky. Instead, he says he thought the two had an understanding: that to get UCI's law school off the ground, a dean would have to subordinate political activism for the good of the school.

Drake says he -- and he alone -- made the decision to change course.

One factor, he said, was the opinion piece published in The Times last month in which Chemerinsky criticized what he called "mean-spirited" government regulations that would make it harder for death row inmates to have their cases reviewed by federal courts.

"He's a really good guy. . . . He is extremely thoughtful and extremely careful in making decisions," said Eva Paterson, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer who has been Drake's friend for 30 years. "After talking to him, Michael felt he had legitimate management reasons for doing what he did. In my private conversation, I told him he made a mistake."

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mike.anton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Paddock contributed to this report.

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