UM students, faculty take wait and see attitude to President-elect Ono

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The University of Michigan community appeared to be taking a wait and see attitude Wednesday after the Board of Regents elected University of British Columbia President Santa J. Ono as the school's newest president.

Regents lauded Ono as a student-centered leader who understood the university's reputation as a leader in medicine, academics, research and athletics. The former University of Cincinnati president is set to assume office on Oct. 13.

But in the wake of the January firing of former President Mark Schlissel, who was accused by regents of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, incoming and current UM students and faculty expressed mixed emotions about the president-elect. But most said they were hopeful Ono would increase trust and communication with the student body.

University of Michigan student Ajia Riley Gunn speaks about the new University of Michigan President Santa Ono in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, July 13, 2022.

"I hope that they listen to students and address concerns and make sure that it's a healthy environment for everyone overall," said incoming Literature, Science and the Arts freshman Ajia Riley Gunn. "And that nothing scandalous happens like the last time."

Prior to his firing, Schlissel encountered a backlash from students over several incidents, including his initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the graduate employee organization's strike in the fall of 2020.

American culture professor Ian Shin said he was excited about the election of Ono, especially because he is the first Asian American president of the university.

"It will be inspiring to students, faculty and staff alike that we have an Asian American president," Shin said. "Above and beyond the diversity that President-elect Ono embodies, we need him to show vision and leadership and judgment."

Shin also emphasized that while representation is powerful, it's not enough to just be a person of color. He said he will wait to judge the new president until he see how Ono  leads the university through ongoing challenges, including the pandemic and the handling of sexual harassment claims. 

"I think people from those backgrounds have a more empathetic understanding of what it means for someone to be marginalized and so they can lead from that perspective," Shin said.

The impact of Asian representation in university leadership remains to be seen, said Mira Simonton-Chao, an LSA senior and president of the university's United Asian American Organization.

"Being the first Asian American president of the University of Michigan, obviously it's important to see people like you in positions of power," Simonton-Chao said. "Power is important, but I feel like it doesn't really go that far in terms of actual community care and building up the Asian American community."

The Asian American group leader added that what really matters is what Ono will do, noting the issues of divestment from police departments and Israel as well as issues with sexual assault and harassment claims.

"If he were to take on any of those in a meaningful capacity, it would be a huge difference in the direction of UM, Ann Arbor's leadership in the past," said Simonton-Chao.

The university assembled a 17-member committee led by regents Denise Ilitch and Sarah Hubbard to help find Schlissel's replacement. Prior to Ono's unanimous election, Hubbard said it was clear that the community wanted a president who championed affordability and access, sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion. 

LSA seniors Ian Young and Faith Nash said they hadn't heard much about Ono, but they hoped he listens to students. 

Young said he hoped Ono emphasized "just caring about students, maybe more so than just like reaching quotas."

Nash added that she thinks the university's mental health program could be improved significantly, as students often face long wait lists for much needed help. 

"Because of how hard the curriculum is, a lot of students do suffer from mental illnesses, specifically from classes," Nash said. "I think improving that would help a lot."

Following his election as university president, Ono made a pledge in support of students' mental health and well-being, citing his own struggles with these issues.

"There are struggles and perhaps through this pandemic, a sense of isolation, that you sometimes can feel," he said. "I felt that way as an adolescent and as a young adult and I pledge to you today that, as president, I will make certain that this university is always there for you on good days and bad."

Deaille Held, a rising senior at the university's Dearborn campus, said while Ono seems like a good fit for the university, she wants to hear about how he will support all three UM campuses as president, rather than just the main Ann Arbor one.

"We're hoping that the the regents and the search committee really did select a president who truly does want to invest in the regional campuses," Held said. "President Ono will need to act as quickly as possible and show his support."

Shin, the professor, noted that Ono and Schlissel have come from hard science or STEM backgrounds and he hopes Ono will foster critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences.

"We also hope that he's a strong supporter of the arts and sciences, and will be a strong advocate for the liberal arts programs on the Dearborn and Flint campuses, which have been recently subjected to immense budget cuts," Held agreed. 

Simonton-Chao expressed similar hopes that Ono will invest more in ethnic studies at the university, which she claims aren't a priority.

"They're not necessarily a priority or something that the University of Michigan is really acknowledged for," Simonton-Chao said. "Maybe trying to... really put money into those programs and develop out of them support systems for students of color."

hmackay@detroitnews.com