University of California President Michael V. Drake responded to questions from UC staff at a virtual town hall meeting open to all UC campuses on Feb. 24. 

Drake is the 21st president of the University of California, and the first Black person to serve in the position. Courtesy of the UC Office of the President Livestream

The town hall was broadcasted from Drake’s Oakland office, where he answered nine selected questions from over 400 pre-submitted questions from UC staff.

The Q&A session was moderated by Priya Lakireddy, UC Regents staff advisor and UC Merced’s Central California Small Business Development Center Regional Network assistant regional director, and Jo Mackness, UC Regents staff advisor designate and UC Berkeley Student Affairs assistant vice chancellor. 

“It’s a thrill to be president. I’ve been a part of the University of California for decades,” Drake said during the town hall. “[I’ve] been a part of things that made a real difference to real people on an everyday basis, so it’s been a great privilege and a pressure.” 

Staff members from UC Davis and UC Irvine submitted concerns related to increasing inflation, cost of living and the $25 billion deficit for this year’s state budget. Drake responded that the UC’s relationship with Governor Gavin Newsom remains strong and that continual funding increases are still covered in Newsom’s budget proposed by Newsom in January. 

“We have a great partner in the governor. Governor Newsom knows the university … and he values higher education and it’s seen in his support of the University of California, the California State University System and community colleges,” Drake said. “We’ve had a wonderful five-year contract with the governor that guarantees stepwise increases in our base funding each year, and the governor’s budget from January maintains that.” 

Drake also shared that the UC system requested a 4.6% wage increase for policy-covered staff. He said that money, when combined with last year’s 4.5% increase, will result in a raise that would be “the largest that we’ve had in a generation.” 

Staff members from multiple campuses expressed worries regarding disparities in racial- or gender-based pay, to which Drake said that the UC remains committed to making sure that pay fairness remains a priority. 

“We are totally committed to pay fairness and pay equity across the board,” Drake said. “Our goal is to treat everyone fairly and appropriately.”

Drake shared his views on hybrid and remote work and the potential ways that they could be applied in the UC’s future, highlighting the numerous UC staff members who work off-campus farms, laboratories, hospitals and more. 

“We had a dramatic pivot three years ago from the way we’d been doing business for 150 years to a brand new way in the span of a week or two,” Drake said. “What we wanted to do in that shift was protect the quality of our enterprise.”

Drake lauded the work of UC hospitals and healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and the efforts of the UC community to keep each other safe through receiving required vaccinations, wearing masks and practicing social distancing. 

UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley staff asked President Drake to address the concern that the demographics of UC staff at the senior level don’t reflect state demographics and diversity. Drake noted the need to increase the number of faculty that the UC system employs to meet the rising number of students being accepted across all ten campuses and shared that the UC’s goal is to have 50% of new faculty be from underrepresented groups. 

UC San Diego, UCSF and UC Davis staff asked Drake how the UC system is holding police departments accountable while also ensuring community members’ safety.

“Colleagues at UC San Diego, UCSF and UC Davis want to know if you believe that our community is safer today and what are some biggest accomplishments so far and how are you keeping police departments accountable?” Lakireddy asked on the behalf of the campuses.

“We had a couple town halls, we elicited responses from a variety of people — we heard from about 1,500 people … we came forward with a community safety plan that was reviewed and then released for public comment,” Drake said. 

He also said that the ongoing community safety plan has four aspects that the UC Regents are focusing on: the consistent measuring of safety vehicles, uniforms and equipment, accountability and an ongoing process of dialog. 

The next question addressed the ongoing climate crisis and asked how the UC system is a leader in the effort to reduce country-wide and global emissions. Drake highlighted three ways that the UC System is working to reduce its emissions: “research, sharing knowledge and behavior.” 

“The way that we all live, the way the university lives and uses energy, that is a very important part of our contributions to our communities’ and society’s dealing with climate change,” Drake said. 

He also highlighted the UC’s goal to be entirely carbon neutral by 2025 and be fossil fuel free “as soon as possible.”

Drake discussed Congress’ recent decision to increase the Pell Grant and current programs and grants that the UC system provides to financially assist its students. The minimum amount of aid that can be received from the grant increased from $650 to $692, and the maximum amount increased from $6,495 to $6,895. 

“One of our goals is to make a debt-free pathway to a UC education available to all of our students, regardless of their financial circumstances,” Drake said. “More than half of our California resident students have their tuition neutralized; we have 100,000 of our students who pay no tuition.” 

“If you’re from a family in California that makes under $80,000 a year, then that tuition is covered by Pell Grants, Cal Grants and University Grants,” he continued. “The larger the Pell Grant Program, the easier it is for us to get to that debt free pathway to a UC education to all Californians by 2030.” 

He said that in spite of commitments to recognizing various cultures’ holidays, the UC will be unable to execute staff members requests for Lunar New Year, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and Native American Day to become paid holidays in the future. 

“Although we want to recognize and be respectful of all of those, we honestly couldn’t have every one of them for every one of those groups … there’s a balance between which of these can be paid and which can be just recognition.” 

Rounding out the event, Drake thanked the 227,000 faculty and staff employed by the UC system and attributed the UC’s standing as “the greatest public research university in the world” to its employees. 

“The University of California is the University of California because of you,” he said. “It’s because of the people who come and work here day in, day out, year in, year out to make this the greatest public research university in the world.”

A version of this article appeared on p. 7 of the March 9, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.