The University of Michigan has tapped a veteran president as its next leader, filling a gap that opened in January when Mark S. Schlissel was fired for cause after an investigation into his interactions with a subordinate.
Michigan’s elected Board of Regents voted unanimously in a special meeting on Wednesday to make Santa J. Ono the university’s next president. Ono will leave his current position, held since 2016, as president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, in Canada. Ono also spent four years at the helm of the University of Cincinnati. In both positions, he cultivated a reputation for connecting with the campus community, often through social media. A molecular immunologist, Ono, 59, is Michigan’s 15th president and its first of Asian descent. He will take office on October 13, according to a university release, and will be responsible for Michigan’s three campuses, health system, and robust athletics program.
A 17-member committee, led by the regents Sarah Hubbard, a Republican, and Denise Ilitch, a Democrat, led the search for Schlissel’s replacement, in conjunction with the search firm Isaacson, Miller. (Michigan’s contract with the firm is among the most expensive ever signed by a public university, The Detroit News reported. Isaacson, Miller will be paid 28 percent of Ono’s base salary — which will be $975,000 — during his first year, the News reported.)
In addition to the $975,000, Ono will receive $350,000 in deferred compensation starting after his first year.
“I’m telling you, it’s a happy damn day,” Ilitch said during Wednesday’s meeting. Hubbard, the board’s vice chair, touted Ono’s “impressive ability to meet the pressing challenges of the day head-on, from sustainability and climate change to mental-health advocacy.”
Ono said the move “feels very right to me,” and praised Michigan as a “pinnacle of public higher education” and “an inspiration to institutions around the world.”
Ono will relieve Mary Sue Coleman, a former Michigan president who led the university on an interim basis after the board ousted Schlissel. His checkered history included a no-confidence vote against him by Michigan’s Faculty Senate in 2020 and tensions with the board, but his tenure came to a halt when the board released 118 pages of documents of his communications with a subordinate. Those flirtatious emails and texts, the board said, marked a violation of the morals clause in Schlissel’s contract, which stipulated that he comport himself in a manner that promotes the “dignity, reputation, and academic excellence of the university.” But it also exposed a broader fissure in Michigan’s culture stemming from sexual-abuse allegations against a former provost, Martin A. Philbert, as The Chronicle reported. Schlissel’s conduct, the Michigan board said in firing him, was “particularly egregious” in light of his stated commitment to stamp out sexual misconduct.
Ono said in a news conference on Wednesday that students’ safety and ability to report sexual-assault allegations were “absolutely a top priority for me and for this institution.”
He added that he had “scanned” the report the law firm WilmerHale had produced on the allegations against Philbert and that he “supports fully” the recommendations made in it. He also acknowledged the cultural concerns that have loomed at Michigan.
“Trust is something that you earn,” Ono said. “I’m a new person. I have no expectations that there will be immediate trust.” He said he planned to have conversations in the early days of his presidency to learn more about the “basis of mistrust” in Ann Arbor.
The Personal Presidency
In terms of public image, Ono offers a marked contrast with Schlissel. Under fire for much of his tenure, Schlissel was criticized for lacking the common touch, particularly with students and alumni who voiced concerns about sexual assault. Ono, by contrast, has preached the virtues of the personal presidency, at times showing a level of vulnerability that is relatively uncommon for a person in his position. In 2016, for example, Ono told an audience at a mental-health fund-raising event that he had twice attempted suicide, first in his teens and again in his late 20s.
Discussing his decision to speak publicly about such a sensitive matter, Ono told The Chronicle at the time, “I felt a great weight lifting off of my shoulders in, for the first time, really talking about my own battles with mental illness and my own suicide attempts. It was not planned; it was very spontaneous.”
Ono said he had felt comfortable discussing his own struggles with mental illness in part because he was doing so from a position of strength, having proved his ability to perform at the highest levels of administration. At the time of the interview, Ono said he had been “symptom-free for 25 years or more.”
Ono made reference to his past mental-health struggles on Wednesday as he pledged to support students at Michigan, particularly through the “isolation” they may have experienced during the pandemic. “I will make certain this university is always there for you on good days and bad,” he told students.
Before college presidents were as ubiquitous on Twitter as Hollywood celebrities, Ono extolled the virtues of the medium as a means of connection. He joined the platform in 2010. By 2014, he had racked up 30,000 followers, an impressive figure for the academic set at the time. (His account at British Columbia now boasts 28,000 followers, and Ono started a new account on Wednesday.) In a 2014 opinion essay for The Chronicle, Ono suggested that the key to a strong Twitter account is authenticity. “For a university president looking to connect with increasingly far-flung and time-challenged constituents,” he wrote, “breaching the sacrosanct personal-professional boundary can be a game changer.”