The search for a new University president has come to an end. Following the unpopular tenure of former-President Mark Schlissel and his termination by the Board of Regents, students and faculty alike questioned who would be next to take the job. This summer, after months of searching, the University hired Dr. Santa Ono, sitting president of University of British Columbia (UBC) and former president of University of Cincinnati (UC). Ono has not only been appointed to lead the University of Michigan onward, but has been chosen to revitalize and fortify the relationship between the University president and the student body. With the loss of trust that accompanied the previous administration, the reconstruction of this connection is essential in order to make institutional progress.
To know the student population, you must interact with them. At Ono’s previous institutions, he found multiple ways to connect with students and make his presence known. Whether it be crowd-surfing at homecoming football games or effectively using social media platforms, Ono has taken initiative to meet with students rather than forcing them to come to him. This people-oriented, personable presence makes a difference: it allows for comfortable connections to be made between the president and students. We expect Ono to uphold this commitment to connecting with students just as closely in his new position.
While participating in the fight songs in the Big House every Saturday and posting the occasional tweet does make a difference in the public perception of the Office of the President, structural change cannot come without trust. In the past, there has been a severe lack of faith in our leadership, but Ono can assuage this distrust by prioritizing the needs of students rather than those of his office. We expect for Ono to not only communicate with students but more broadly to reembody the aura of a trustworthy and thoughtful campus administrator. Renewing this belief in University officials is the backbone by which change can happen, as trust permits open dialogues and a confidence in the authority figures that dictate so many important matters on campus.
Santa Ono’s agreeableness distinguishes him from our last dormant and somewhat stiff president. A popular figure around his previous campuses, Ono has proved that he is capable of naturally engaging with the student body and the University as a whole. For instance, Ono has actively endorsed the University’s athletic department, and, during his time at the UC, he got into uniform and started practicing with the football team. He was also spotted at several Cincinnati games cheering for the team.
On top of this school spirit, Ono is a talented cellist, having studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Maryland. At UBC, he was quite involved in the music department, and not just administratively. For example, he performed at a pop-up concert with several music students at a train station, which was a pleasant surprise for individuals boarding.
Ono is a well rounded individual to say the least, but what has he done in regards to the pressing issues many North American universities face? Well, for starters, he’s an active leader in the University Climate Change Coalition, an organization that’s dedicated to reducing carbon emissions and relying more on renewable sources of energy. Ono’s work at UBC showcases his passion for this, having worked to implement several decarbonization programs, such as the Bioenergy Research Demonstration Facility.
Additionally, since 2007, UBC has reduced its GHG emissions by a resounding 30%. On historically unaddressed issues, such as mental health, Ono has voiced his concerns and taken important action at the UC. Following a suicide in 2016, Ono took immediate action by providing all UC students with free counseling sessions and promoting several fundraisers, such as the 1N5 — which seeks to fight the stigma associated with mental illness and provide resources for those in need of therapy. In a moment of vulnerability, he even spoke out about his struggle with mental health in an Enquirer interview, stating that he personally suffered with depression and suicidal ideation in his youth and that he was able to get the help he needed to move forward.
Further, Ono has spoken prolifically about his commitment to tackle sexual assault culture at UBC, going so far as to say that he had “the final word in terms of discipline in these kinds of cases.” He even promised to bring in and work with experts on how to address rape culture at UBC. Thus, considering his charisma and professional dexterity in handling a variety of pertinent and pervasive issues on college campuses, it seems that the Board of Regents was right in unanimously approving his appointment as the next University president.
Unfortunately, a modest probing of Ono’s resumé does point to potentially troubling realities. During a period of his tenure at UBC, for instance, an ongoing investigation carried out by the United States Department of Education assessed several complaints pointed at Ono’s administration in regards to discriminatory practices that failed to properly respond to sexual violence incidents that it had awareness of. He was ultimately cleared of involvement in any discriminatory practices in the investigation.
This potential dismissal of sexual violence extends past Ono’s time at UBC. With nearly 100 reports of sexual assault on the UC campus in 2015, this ultimately subjected students to a “sexually hostile environment,” a quote taken from a letter that the Department of Education sent to Ono. Given the University of Michigan’s historical failure to cohesively address sexual assault allegations,we are hopeful that the new president may offer more than just lip service when it comes to sexual assault culture.
In essence, when it comes to school pride and mild domestic liberalism, Ono seems to check off some boxes, but only if we blur over fundamental parts of his history. Compared to our last president, Ono definitely seems to have more of a face to him. However, when it comes to sexual assault culture, students cannot be wholly optimistic about the appointment of Ono.
Still, the looming tenure of Ono holds a wealth of expectations behind it, both from colleagues in the administration and the general student body. In particular, tackling the culture of sexual misconduct that has run rampant on campus will comprise much of Ono’s responsibilities. Recovering from Schlissel’s occupancy, which was tainted by numerous scandals, many of which illuminated a disappointing apathy from the administration as a whole, requires Ono to help develop a more uniform and comprehensive framework with detailed plans of action against future cases.
In addition, Ono faces a unique opportunity to help catapult the campus into a more sustainable environment. Ono’s appointment to the presidency notably coincides with the election of multiple City Council members who are open to modernizing Ann Arbor’s approach to a greener lifestyle. This includes implementing more sources of renewable energy, increased efforts for affordable housing and helping bring the campus one step closer to university-wide carbon neutrality. While decreasing carbon emissions and food waste as outlined currently, Ono faces the mission of integrating sustainability into the everyday campus-wide culture. This ties into an overall anticipation that accompanies Ono’s commitment: a genuine and authentic effort to impact this school by forming connections with the community.
In addition to prioritizing sustainability, Ono needs to put a more concerted effort into expanding the diversity of this school — not just in terms of race, sexuality and gender, but socioeconomically as well. With the median family income of a student on the Ann Arbor campus being around $154,000 (about 2.5 times as much as the household income of an average Michigan resident), and nearly 70% of the campus community belonging to the top 20%, there is a severe problem of overrepresentation of students from affluent backgrounds. Much of this problem can be acknowledged at the root: the University’s approach to enrollment. In fact, as of 2019, over 10% of students came from only 10 high schools. Addressing this problem means making an active effort to recruit in lower-income areas and communities that are underprivileged. Much of this effort lies in promoting and further advancing the Go Blue Guarantee, which offers free tuition for families with incomes under $65,000.
This inequality is more than a mere demographic — many students coming from less privileged backgrounds experience difficulties with accessing campus-wide resources that should be available to all. Expanding resources concerning mental health is a step in the right direction, as many students often have difficulty in obtaining adequate care for serious mental health conditions that are non-emergencies. While it may not be realistic to have personalized psychological care for each and every student, starting with those that are not able to access these resources by themselves will still make an immense difference. This includes accommodating a large student body that contains a wide variety of economic backgrounds, as well as problems in mental health.
President Santa Ono has considerable shoes to fill. Following the ups and downs of the previous administration, Ono now takes on the duty of not only repairing the damage and distrust that has resulted from it, but ushering in a new era of advancement towards a more diverse, modern and safe campus community.