Santa Ono sits with his arms rested on a table.
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It’s been just over a year since University of Michigan President Santa Ono took office. Ono has dealt with a wide array of matters in his tenure so far, including a Graduate Employers’ Organization strike, a grading scandal, a national football controversy and violence in the Middle East. While engaging with the more formal aspects of the role, Ono has remained an active member of the campus community and overall personable figure. However, the excitement of Ono’s initial arrival has come and gone, and criticism of his position and efficacy has come to the forefront. Ono, although socially popular, has in reality done little to meaningfully address the needs of the students he serves.

According to the Michigan state constitution, the President of the University of Michigan is the “principal executive officer” of the University. Ono, like all presidents before him, is expected to be an “ex-officio member” of the University’s Board of Regents and preside over it without voting rights. However, this is where the statewide aspects of the job end. The bylaws of the University offer more detail on the responsibilities of the president, which include the supervision of teaching and research, faculty and staff well-being, the business welfare of the University and “the maintenance of health, diligence, and order among the students.” 

Ono’s job requirements are relatively unclear — and as the chief executive, this is partially by design. He is to implement the strategic vision for the University as defined by the regents. The University president has to coordinate all University executive officers and their respective departments, which range from student life to academic affairs. He must put together all of the pieces of the massive University puzzle and ensure order within the ranks. 

Considering that the administration of Ono’s predecessor ended in scandal, Ono has been victorious in his efforts to avoid personal controversy while still making progress. Despite the limitations of the position, Ono has nonetheless advanced the creation of scholarship programs supported by tuition increases and backed the construction of additional residence halls. Students have also commended Ono’s focus on environmental sustainability, which particularly focuses on achieving the campus-wide goal of carbon neutrality.

Ono has also performed well in his function as a cheerleader of sorts, making engagement with students a cornerstone of his administration. He is a constant presence at Michigan football games, tossing T-shirts into the crowd. Last year, Ono joined the annual Hill Auditorium Halloween Concert, playing the cello while dressed as a member of the Michigan football team. The president also operates his own social media accounts, frequently responding to student comments and affairs. But regardless of this positive on-campus and online presence, Ono still has trouble actively connecting with the more deep-seated desires of University students. His job of representing a diverse and passionate student body is admittedly difficult, but this simple act of avoiding personal controversies and being conversational with students is not enough for definitive praise of his performance thus far. 

Although most campus proceedings do not involve the president, responsibility tends to flow to the top. Ono may not be able to personally effectuate the changes that students care about, but he can embrace the needs of every student in his leadership on all three campuses. Most decision-making power, such as financial policy or the drafting of political statements, falls to the Board of Regents. Even still, Ono was appointed by the Board of Regents to carry out their vision, and the regents are meant to respond to Michigan voters. Influencing the Board of Regents may be a more challenging task, but they are elected public servants who are meant to serve us. In turn, Ono still has a responsibility to respond to the desires of the campus community via collaboration with this branch and the maintenance of open lines of public communication.  

Ono is not the be-all and end-all of campus advocacy. Within the Office of the President, students and staff have the ability to correspond with the heads of various leadership teams through both email and reporting forms. It is equally crucial to recognize that Ono and his executive branch aren’t the only people syndicated to parse through student grievances. The Office of the Student Ombuds, conveniently housed in the Michigan Union, is designed to resolve or escalate issues that students have with the University. 

This is all to say that, in the grand scheme of things, the University president has relatively little power. We should remain critical of him for his actions, and lack thereof, and should hold him accountable for his sometimes imbalanced University-student partnerships. However, we must also consider that our recommendations can be better implemented when directed toward a more decision-oriented pillar of the University’s administration. As students and consumers of the University’s services and voters in Board of Regents elections, it is crucial that all voices are taken into consideration and appropriately addressed by University executives. Continue to protest in front of the President’s House, but also attend the occasional Board of Regents meeting. Realistically, Ono himself can make minimal progress in the lives of students — it’s just not in his job description.