University of Michigan elects Santa Ono as 15th president; he lauds UM's 'unique energy'
Ann Arbor — University of Michigan Regents voted unanimously to elect University of British Columbia President Santa J. Ono as the university's next president during a Wednesday special meeting, lauding the seasoned administrator as a strong and empathetic leader.
The regents also praised Ono, who led the University of Cincinnati for four years, as a committed educator and visionary who will serve as the university's 15th president in its 204 years.
“You will lead our university at a critical time, when our work is more important and urgent than ever before," Regent Mark Bernstein told Ono. "No institution harnesses the scope and scale of excellence in the service of the public mission like this one."
Ono, 59, will be the first person of Asian descent to hold the post of UM president.
Ono introduced himself during Wednesday's special board meeting, saying he grew up surrounded by higher education. His father was a mathematics professor at the University of British Columbia. On Wednesday, he described learning to ride his bike among the students, historic academic buildings and beautiful trees on the campus there.
"I've always loved the energy of a great public research university," Ono said. "I have always known that universities can and do transform the world for the better."
The University of Michigan is no different, he said.
"It has a unique energy that conveys a sense of purpose to everyone from a first-year student to the president of the institution," Ono said. "It is a pinnacle of public higher education. It's an inspiration to institutions around the world. Michigan is one of the world's great public universities, has an unrivaled research enterprise that every day results in innovations and discoveries that shape the future."
He described himself as a leader committed to building a supportive, affordable, diverse and energetic campus, a practiced liaison between universities and their public financiers, a professor's son who finds thrill in public education and a father who takes seriously the damaging effects of sexual harassment and assault.
Ono addresses scandals
Ono will take the helm of UM on Oct. 13 following the scandalous and high-profile exit of Mark Schlissel, whom the board fired after what it said was an undisclosed, inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, an allegation Schlissel denied. The university also endured a wave of sexual assault and harassment scandals during Schlissel's tenure.
Ono said he joined UBC under similar circumstances and during his tenure set up protocols for preventing, investigating and disciplining cases of sexual assault and harassment on campus.
"I'm the father of two daughters," Ono said at a press conference following the regents meeting. "At the University of British Columbia, I'm the final word in terms of discipline in these sorts of cases.
"I have a lot of direct experience in the damage these sorts of things, sexual assault and harassment, have on young men and women. It's unacceptable. It will be part of my responsibility, and I need to be held accountable to do everything I can to continue to move this institution forward."
Ono said he has listened to every listening session conducted by the regents' 17-member presidential search committee and listened to two years of UM regents meetings, an experience he said gives him an understanding of concerns on campus.
He plans to build trust by listening to people in the UM community.
"Trust is something that you earn," he said. "I have no expectations that there will be immediate trust. I want to earn it."
Speaking directly to UM students Wednesday, Ono said he understood the feelings of isolation they may be experiencing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He felt similarly as an adolescent and pledged to "make certain that this university is always there for you on good days and bad, so that you can succeed and thrive to the maximum potential that you've demonstrated to us from the moment you expressed an interest in coming to Michigan."
When Ono starts at UM
Although Ono won't become president for three months, he said at a press conference that he would come back to campus periodically before he takes office.
President Mary Sue Coleman will continue leading UM until then.
Ono will receive a base salary of $975,000, subject to annual increases at the Board of Regents' discretion, and $350,000 in deferred compensation starting after the first year, according to a university release.
At the University of British Columbia, he earned an annual salary of $449,400 in 2020-21, which is the equivalent of $369,138 in U.S. dollars under current exchange rates. Including benefits and pension contributions, his total compensation of $611,712 translates to over $471,000 in U.S. currency.
He also will receive regular university benefits and supplemental contributions to a retirement plan, live in the President's House, receive an expense allowance and get the use of an automobile and a driver, according to university policies.
Regent Sarah Hubbard, who helped lead the presidential search committee, said committee members, faculty, students and staff wanted a president with a background in leading a large research institution, a commitment to access and affordability, sustainability, carbon neutrality, diversity and safety.
Regent Denise Ilitch, who also helped lead the committee, said Ono demonstrated those qualities. He has strong emotional intelligence, communication and listening skills, a love for students and education and an understanding of the role collaborative relationships play in working toward a common goal, she said.
"It is readily apparent to me after getting to know Dr. Ono and learning about his experience as a university administrator that he is the right person to lead the University of Michigan at this moment in time," she said.
Ono was the favorite candidate of each of the university's eight regents, Regent Ron Weiser said.
Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of Michigan’s University Research Corridor — an alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — lauded Ono's hiring as "a fantastic choice."
"All three URC universities will now be headed by presidents with advanced degrees in medicine, at a time when the URC continues to lead the nation in producing medical graduates and awarding advanced medicine and biological sciences degrees," he said.
Renee Curtis, a registered nurse and president of the Michigan Nurses Association-University of Michigan Professional Council, said the association's 6,000-plus members welcomed Ono and the new era he would usher in on campus.
The association is bargaining a new contract with university administrators and is planning a Saturday informational picket.
"Nurses are the backbone of the university's health system and we look forward to having a partner in Dr. Ono as we stay true to our commitment to providing safe, quality care at all times," she said.
Challenges for Ono
Ono will pick up the reins of a university with one of the largest public research portfolios in the nation, a renowned health system and a high-profile intercollegiate athletics program.
But experts say Ono will face numerous challenges, including culture wars targeting higher education, a declining international student population following COVID-19 and former Trump administration policies, and an evolving world of college sports.
Among his challenges will be the aftermath of numerous UM sexual misconduct scandals, including those involving former Provost Martin Philbert, deceased UM doctor Robert Anderson and Schlissel.
"You want to be a place where the best and brightest are coming from around the world," said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a think tank based in Ann Arbor.
Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said the next president "has an exciting opportunity to provide leadership for one of our state’s most recognizable public assets at a transformative time in history."
"As the next leader of the University of Michigan transitions into the presidency, it will be beneficial for the individual to work closely with the Board of Regents to ensure that they are working in unison toward achieving the institution’s top strategic priorities," Hurley said.
"As is the case with all new organizational leaders, it will be helpful for the incoming president of UM to meet extensively with all key stakeholder groups to hear their ideas on how best to support and advance the university’s mission."
Regents identified rectifying the trust deficit on campus as a top priority early in the presidential search, but other issues emerged, including supporting UM's regional campuses in Dearborn and Flint.
"This is where the (lack of) trust came from: We have issues where our community thinks we have fallen down and correctly so, whether it be sexual assault, climate change and the support of our regional campuses," said Regent Paul Brown, the board chair. "He really has experience on all those."
Regent Michael Behm noted there are 15 public universities in the state, but high school graduating classes are going to decrease in size until 2033.
Every one of the state's 15 public universities except UM and Michigan State University is losing enrollment, Brown added. UM has the state's largest enrollment at more than 50,000 students.
"There may be one or two of those 15 that don't survive," Brown said. "We want Flint, Dearborn and Ann Arbor to not only survive but thrive."