While E. Gordon Gee never missed a chance to turn a meal into an networking opportunity, Ohio State University’s new president, Michael V. Drake, often eats a sandwich packed from home at his desk during the work day.
Drake, 64, an ophthalmologist, took over the helm of Ohio’s flagship university on June 30, 2014, following Gee’s abrupt retirement and then departure for West Virginia University.
Gee blasted along at a frenetic pace, always with an eye out for the chance to shake a potential donor’s hand or work a room like a veteran politician. The bow-tie-wearing Gee routinely showed up at frat parties, flash mobs and pop music concerts to endear himself to students.
Drake, meanwhile, comes across as calm, measured and perfectly happy to avoid being the center of attention.
Drake names meeting John and Annie Glenn, talking with families and students on dorm move-in day, and celebrating a national championship with the football team among his first-year highlights. And on his list of challenges: the suicide of OSU football player Kosta Karageorge in November and the downtown Columbus truck-bus crash that killed student Stephanie Fibelkorn in December.
When Drake first arrived on campus, he was immediately thrown into the limelight when he fired Jon Waters, the critically acclaimed and popular director of OSU Marching Band. Drake dismissed Waters after university lawyers issued a 92-page report detailing sexual harassment and bad behavior in the band.
A year after the firing, lawsuits are still pending and the issue still occupies Drake’s time, although less so now.
“Not quite completely done but that’s the past,” Drake said. “I’ll tell you what we are really looking at is the future of the band.”
Drake is not as visible as Gee in political circles.
“He seems to be more Mr. Inside than Mr. Outside, pretty much immersed up there in a monumental job,” said state Rep. Mike Curtin, D-Marble Cliff, who is an OSU alum and former associate publisher of The Columbus Dispatch. “Gordon was ubiquitous. Gordon was everywhere. There seemed to be several Gordons all at once. He seemed to have clones of himself because you’d see him everywhere.”
Drake noted the comparisons to Gee have died down. “You hear that more at the beginning than you do after a few months,” he said. “It doesn’t come up so much these days.”
The job is demanding. OSU’s president must be a first-rate fundraiser, be able to convince lawmakers and governors to parse out precious funds, operate both a major medical center and a nationally recognized sports enterprise, manage a nearly $6 billion budget and 33,000 employees, and serve diverse constituents that include 65,000 students, 500,000 alumni and 11 million Ohioans.
“He strikes one as a very, very decent man. He comes across as somebody who you really want to like because he seems to be a pretty humble guy, thoughtful and not full of himself,” Curtin said. “When you first meet him, he makes a very favorable first impression.”
Drake is planting his leadership flag in the ongoing struggle to make a college education affordable and accessible to the masses while maintaining quality.
He told his team to compile $200 million in administrative spending cuts and find another $200 million in new revenues over the next five years. He wants to plow the $400 million into lowering student costs and improving OSU.
In June, the OSU Board of Trustees voted to freeze tuition, mandatory fees and room and board for in-state undergraduates at the main campus for the upcoming academic year and announced a $15 million pool of grant money to defray college costs for 12,400 low- and middle-income students. OSU has frozen in-state tuition and fees since the 2012-13 academic year.
Drake said that OSU’s scale allows it to be a national leader on college affordability.
“It positions us to be a national leader in almost everything we do,” he said. “We are an incredibly relevant university to the higher education landscape across the country.”
College students throughout America are graduating with crushing debt. In Ohio, 68 percent of students borrow money to pay for college and they graduate with an average debt load of $29,090, according to the Project on Student Debt’s figures for 2014.
“Students crossing the Oval with book bags filled with knowledge and promise should not be burdened with weight of worry about how to pay for college,” Drake said during his investiture ceremony in March.
Two areas where Drake may be able to free up money: executive pay and utility bills.
The university is in the midst of a two-year look at OSU’s executive compensation system for some 425 top-level OSU employees. The handsome pay packages afforded to top-tier administrators, doctors, coaches and faculty under Gee aren’t likely to be rolled back. But Drake wants a new starting point when negotiating pay for top administrators and faculty.
OSU had used the 75th percentile of pay among its peer institutions as the beginning point but that will be bumped down to the 50th percentile.
“I don’t think Dr. Drake has any reservation about paying really good people market-competitive compensation, but I think the president is very focused on doing everything that we can do to ensure that that bargain remains good for the university and the individual we’re hiring,” said OSU Trustee Jerry Jurgensen, who is leading a pay review committee.
OSU has 33,000 employees and an annual payroll of $2.3 billion.
Ohio State also is exploring whether it can save big money by hiring an outside company to take over its utilities — supplying energy, maintaining campus plants, pipes and lines and investing in conservation measures. The deal would likely be for 50 years, according to OSU.
The central campus utility bill — for 411 buildings — was about $100 million in the last fiscal year. Retrofitting older buildings to be more energy efficient would cost $250 million to $300 million and bringing back the shuttered power plant as a green energy generator would cost as much as $150 million, according to OSU Treasurer Michael Papadakis.
Ohio State received pitches from 44 companies that would be interested in taking over the utilities, supplying energy and installing conservation measures. University officials this fall are expected to go to the next step and request more detailed information from 40 qualified firms on how it might work. The project has been in the making for more than three years, university officials said.
No other large institution in the nation has leased out management and supply of its utilities on this scale, according to OSU Provost Joseph Steinmetz.
Under Gee’s leadership in 2012, Ohio State signed a 50-year lease with QIC, a global investment firm, to operate 36,000 parking spaces on campus in exchange for $483 million in cash up front. OSU’s chief financial officer, Geoff Chatas, engineered the parking deal and then in March announced he was going to work for QIC. Weeks later, Chatas rescinded his resignation and decided to stay at OSU.
Steinmetz said the utility project is different than the parking deal because campus groups are more engaged in the process and it’s a bigger endeavor.
Steven Conn, a former history professor at OSU who now teaches at Miami University, was so disgusted with Ohio State’s latest financial deals that he penned a blistering criticism in the Chronicle of Higher Education in March.
Conn said in his essay that Ohio State has changed its motto from “Education for Citizenship” to “Everything is for Sale.”
“Yes, sir, we are open for business!,” he wrote. “And by ‘open for business’ I mean: ‘Make us an offer for something, and we’ll sell it to you like a pair of pants at a department-store closeout.’”
Steinmetz said the utility project isn’t a done deal.
“I would say we have an absolutely open mind going into this process of whether or not this is a good thing, mainly because we don’t have anybody else who has done this kind of thing,” he said.