Today marks the beginning of Dr. Santa Ono’s presidency. After being announced as the 15th president of the University of Michigan in July, the campus community has been preparing for the start of a new era for the University.
Upon hearing of Ono’s selection as the next president, members of the student body quickly took note of Ono’s reputation as an administrator who interacts with students. Members of Central Student Government (CSG) were some of the first students to wonder if this reputation had any merit, and, according to LSA senior and CSG President Noah Zimmerman, it does.
“(Ono) is just so student-focused that we are really excited to work with him,” Zimmerman said. “He has a lot of enthusiasm for what we’ve brought him already, and I think he will be really keen on engaging with students.”
Zimmerman said CSG has established communication with Ono already, and that he hopes an open line of communication will continue because of its importance to campus and student life.
“He said from the get-go that we need to be transparent, we need to be honest with him, and if something’s not working, tell him, because he wants to know,” Zimmerman said. “There’s a level of respect, and I think that’s always there, and I want to make sure that we maintain that.’”
Business junior Trevor Wallace, who serves as the finance and operations coordinator at Student Sustainability Coalition (SSC), said the SSC is “cautiously optimistic” about Ono’s presidency, primarily because of the sustainability efforts he oversaw as the president of the University of British Columbia.
“He has a good past record at the University of British Columbia with sustainability progress,” Wallace said. “We think that he represents a great change from the previous administration in allowing student voices to (make sustainability progress), and being able to have sustainability be a top priority of the University.”
Wallace said the SSC’s main concern is ensuring that student voices are not neglected, and that he hopes Ono’s presidency will mark a change in that.
“I know that, in the past, we’ve had many student groups feel that we’ve been pushing things for a long time but that we haven’t been heard,” Wallace said. “It’s possible that that’s the way administration works, and it’s possible that students might continue to be neglected, and that is a concern of many students on campus.”
Wallace said the SSC hopes to build a positive relationship with Ono. He said collaboration between students and administration is the most effective way to create change on campus.
“Just having a relationship and being open about what their actions are and what their goals are, and how (SSC’s) goals can match up with that, would be a great stepping point to be able to have a long-term student and president connection,” Wallace said.
Jacob Lederman, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Flint campus, is an active member of the One University campaign, a faculty and student-led group advocating for equitable funding on the University’s three campuses. Lederman said he hopes Ono will prioritize building relationships with not only their organization, but also with the satellite campuses as well.
“We would like a chance to build a relationship with him personally,” Lederman said. “Speaking only with the campus leadership, as in the leadership at Dearborn and Flint, there has often been a lot of miscommunication that seems to go on between our campus and leadership at the presidential and regental level. So, we’d like the opportunity to share directly with him some of the issues we’re working on.”
At the September Board of Regents meeting, then-Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman announced a transformative plan to improve U-M Flint’s enrollment rates in response to a 30% drop since 2014. Lederman said One University is cautious of this plan and hopes that Ono will lead it in the right direction.
“We are optimistic but concerned about a planned ‘transformation’ at the Flint campus,” Lederman said. “One University wants to work with President Ono and others to make sure that that investment helps to promote equity and access to U-M Flint and specifically to make sure that our students on the U-M Flint campus can continue to attend a comprehensive university with all of the liberal arts, fine arts and sciences that we’ve traditionally had.”
Lederman said One University is primarily concerned that students on the Dearborn and Flint campuses will lose opportunities that students on the Ann Arbor campus will continue to enjoy.
“We are concerned that we may be heading towards a three-campus system, in which wealthier students on the Ann Arbor campus can major in topics such as politics, biology or philosophy and students on the Flint and Dearborn campus are encouraged to major only in the professional fields,” Lederman said.
As for how to achieve One University’s goals, Lederman said they hope that Ono will be more inclined to listen to their organization’s concerns.
“I think we would hope to have someone who is more of a listener that we could come to directly,” Lederman said. “Of course there are going to be competing interests that President Ono and our campus leadership have to grapple with. We understand that. I think it was difficult to have those conversations because we didn’t really have a listener at the presidential level.”
Kirsten Herold, LEO president and lecturer for the School of Public Health, echoed similar hopes in that she would like to see Ono dedicate necessary attention to the U-M Flint and U-M Dearborn campuses. Herold said U-M Flint has already seen substantial lecturer layoffs and very few full-time staff members.
“We have maybe 250 or so lecturers in Flint,” Herold said. “There’s already been substantial layoffs in Flint … we have very few full-time (lecturers at U-M Flint), actually, most people are part-time now.”
Stevens Wandmacher, lecturer at U-M Flint and LEO member, reiterated these concerns regarding students and lecturers at the Dearborn and Flint campuses.
“Ann Arbor is a huge campus and a very complex organization, but there are two other campuses that deserve the attention of the president, and I hope we get what we need in that regard,” Wandmacher said.
Wandmacher spoke about U-M Flint’s campus transformation initiative and said he hopes that Ono will make efforts to help U-M Flint work toward this goal.
“On the Flint campus, we’re undergoing a transformation initiative: we’ve had declining enrollment for a number of years, and we’re trying to figure out how to deal with that,” Wandmacher said. “I’m hoping that the president will be a good partner to our chancellor as we move forward.”
In terms of labor union work, Jared Eno, Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) president, said he is anticipating a new approach from Ono’s administration for when GEO’s contract negotiations start up again later this year. GEO’s current contract was ratified in April 2020, just months before the union went on strike to protest then-president Mark Schlissel’s decision to reopen the University amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The University filed a lawsuit against GEO and its members, ultimately leading the union to end their strike.
“The bargaining of our new contract offers a really great opportunity for the University to solve some of these problems that so many grad students are facing,” Eno said. “I am really excited about Ono bringing a new approach to those negotiations, given the hardline and oppositional stance that we encountered under Schlissel the last time we were trying to fight for ourselves and solve the problems that we’re facing.”
Eno said Ono’s presidency will be an opportunity to hold open conversations about the issues impacting graduate students at the University, particularly regarding affordability and the cost of living.
“Grad workers are really struggling with a crisis of affordability, and that comes not only from the pay that we have … but also many of the additional costs that the University places on grad students,” Eno said. “Given that (Ono) is so focused on the experience of folks in the community, I imagine he’ll be very concerned with addressing many of these hidden costs.”
Herold shared similar sentiments and said she was looking forward to having a president who doesn’t see campus labor unions as antithetical to the administration’s interests.
“Previous administrations have treated labor unions on campus as an irritant, as an outside force, which is wrong,” Herold said. “We’re hoping for more dialogue (and) a more open and receptive leadership style.”
While excited, Herold also expressed a degree of caution, and said she hopes Ono can live up to the expectations that have been laid out for him.
“I was on the search committee, so I’m excited,” Herold said. “I felt good about the choice. I’m also slightly nervous because we’re expecting a lot of him … I’m really hoping that he can address some of the damage that has been done to the University’s reputation.”
Daily Staff Reporters Riley Hodder and Irena Li can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.