Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide and attempts of suicide, mentions of sexual assault and mentions of police violence.
“It’s official: Santa is coming to town,” “I’m okay with our new president being a Sagittarius” and “Santa’s meme game is fire” are only a few of the memes circulating on Instagram and Twitter following the appointment of Dr. Santa Ono as the University of Michigan’s 15th President at a special Board of Regents meeting July 13.
Ono’s appointment as the 15th President of the University comes after a four-month search by the Presidential Search Committee, led by co-chairs Regents Sarah Hubbard (R) and Denise Ilitch (D). In an interview with President-elect Ono, Hubbard and Ilitch emphasized the impact the community listening sessions had on the presidential search. Hubbard also said Ono was in one of the first pools of candidates that the committee began considering in March.
Zackariah Farah, U-M alum and Research Assistant at Michigan Medicine, said he is impressed by how Ono interacts with the students at the universities he has led, the University of British Columbia and the Univerisity of Cincinnati.
“I’ve heard that he is very accessible and that he loves talking to students, and in my four years at U-M, I only saw Mark Schlissel in person once, which is pretty crazy,” Farah said. “(I’m looking forward to) just having someone who is willing to mingle and (be) friendly with the people that they’re supposed to represent and lead, and I hope that is what Santa Ono is going to bring to the table.”
Farah said that while he’s excited for Ono to take over as president, he’s left with questions about how Ono’s administration will handle the problems at the University.
“When it comes down to (it), I’m mostly interested in ‘How is his administration going to reduce emissions? How is his administration going to prevent sexual assault cases and actually take accountability for the massive cases of sexual assault that have happened on campus with Dr. Anderson, for example, or Professor Conforth?’” Farah said. “And I’m also really interested to see how his administration will treat the workers of this university. I was very disappointed by how (former President) Mark Schlissel threatened our unions on campus.”
During Ono’s presidency at the University of Cincinnati, Samuel Dubose was fatally shot by UC police officer Ray Tensing during an off-campus traffic stop on July 19, 2015. In response to the shooting, Ono announced the review and reform of the UC police department and appointed a new Vice President for Safety and Reform, Robin Engel. Though Tensing was tried twice on charges of murder and voluntary manslaughter, both ended in mistrials and Tensing did not face criminal charges.
In 2016, after a student on the University of Cincinnati campus committed suicide, Ono spoke out on Twitter about his past struggles with mental health and his own attempts at suicide. Ono also attended an N15 fundraiser, named for the statistic that one in five people will suffer from mental illness, to help raise money for teenagers struggling with mental illness.
Kirsten Herold, LEO-GLAM President, Public Health lecturer and a member of the Presidential Search Committee, declined to participate in a formal interview to maintain the confidentiality of the presidential search. In an email to The Michigan Daily, Herold stated she was honored to be part of this year’s search committee.
“Here is what I think I can say: I was honored to be asked to serve on the committee,” Herold wrote. “We had a much more diverse search committee than most universities have (typically Deans and wealthy donors only), and we all took the process very seriously and worked extremely well together. We all attended the listening sessions and took the input to heart. The search firm, the UM staff support and the joint leadership of Regents Hubbard and Ilitch made it an efficient and collaborative process. I am very pleased with the final result and am excited to be working with the new president in the years to come.”
Eshana Bhangu, a third-year student at UBC and President of Alma Mater Society (AMS) — the student government at the Vancouver campus — said that Ono was receptive to student needs and often worked with AMS on student issues.
“There’s this discipline regulation that applies to all students that is essentially under the President’s Office … and after the president’s approval, it was published.” Bhangu said. “However, (AMS) hadn’t been consulted on that. And we reached out to Dr. Ono on a Friday evening, letting him know that ‘Hey, we weren’t consulted, and we aren’t happy with this change because it affects a lot of students,’ and Dr. Ono didn’t hesitate from rescinding his approval of the change in regulation and said that nothing will go forward without student consultation on that case.”
Bhangu also said Ono had a positive relationship with students on the UBC campus and enjoyed how involved he was with the campus.
“He’s quite a good sport,” Bhangu said. “He’s very pleasant to interact with. He’s very accessible to students. I think students just love that about him … and he’s just very present on our campus. One of our (campus) bucket list items is ‘Get a Selfie with Santa,’ so you’ll often see him across campus, and he will not even think twice before stopping and taking selfies with like a hundred students crowded around him.”
Jared Eno, Rackham student and President of the Graduate Employees Organization, said GEO is glad to see that President Ono values student activism and looks forward to working on a new contract with the administration.
“We are heading into a contract campaign this coming academic year, that is, GEO will be negotiating a new contract with the University,” Eno said. “President Ono’s acknowledgment at the special regents meeting … where he said this student activism is often ahead of the curve … we appreciate that acknowledgement from him, and we look forward to being in conversation with him.”
Eno said he hopes Ono will help address workers’ wages, an ongoing issue at the University and nationally.
“The MIT living wage calculator gives a living wage of $38,542 for Ann Arbor in 2022,” Eno said. “And in this upcoming academic year, GSI will make $24,000 about. So that means the grad workers are making less than two thirds of the living wage here in Ann Arbor. So I’m encouraged that President Ono has expressed a lot of care for students. And we hope that he shows that in both words and actions.”
LSA senior Noah Zimmerman, President of Central Student Government, said CSG is looking forward to seeing a new administration that builds trust with their students.
“I think the overarching theme that we want to see, especially out of this first year, is building trust with students,” Zimmerman said. “We’re coming out of the year where there’s not a lot of trust in the administration. There’s been a lot of failure in a lot of different areas, whether it’s sexual misconduct and lack of prevention … whether it’s attacking climate change and addressing what we can do on campus … I’m optimistic that they’ll live up to his promises that he will engage as much as possible with the students.”
Zimmerman said he hopes President Ono’s administration will work through campus issues with CSG.
“From the student government perspective, we really want to build a solid foundation, just because we are that liaison (between students and administration), and we think it’s super crucial to have a president who’s willing to talk with us to work through problems with us, to inform us so we can inform the students as best as possible as well,” Zimmerman said. “That’s all built into that layer of rebuilding trust between the administration and the students, and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to do that, or at least start to do that, this year.”
Arie Davey, co-chair for Payment 4 Placements, said they are excited about working with a new president because they believe past administration efforts did not support student workers.
“I was very excited about the possibilities of having a new president, Davey said. “P4P works very closely with GEO, and I know there’s a lot of history with Mary Sue Coleman not supporting student workers. She’s also spoken against Payment 4 Placements, actually, (in an interview) with The Michigan Daily.”
Davey said that hearing about Ono’s past work was helpful for social work students.
“Hearing that Santa Ono really wants to work on listening and collaborating with students, the fact that he has worked with governments and private companies on things like higher education and mental health, is helpful to us because we know that a huge mental health barrier for all social work students is that we have to work unpaid for many hours a week, and so students end up really just struggling to stay afloat financially,” Davey said.
Davey also said that as graduate students who will begin contract negotiations, they are very hopeful about collaborating with Ono.
“This is a very hopeful time for graduate student labor,” Davey said. “And we just really hope that Santa Ono is very forward thinking and wants to be the change and make the University of Michigan an example of the future of higher education.”