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Following the Board of Regents’ approval of President-elect Santa Ono on Wednesday, The Michigan Daily sat down with Ono as well as the co-chairs of the Presidential Search Committee, Regents Sarah Hubbard (R) and Denise Ilitch (D), to discuss Ono’s experience, the presidential search process and more. 

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Interview with Presidential Search Committee   

The Michigan Daily: When did you first identify Ono as a candidate and how long have you been considering him?

Sarah Hubbard: We worked with a search firm — Isaacson, Miller — and part of what they did is helped us identify this big pool of candidates. So they were going to look at every possible candidate across the world. After the listening sessions, we developed the job description and Ono was in one of those very early pools of 100 candidates when we started the search in March. 

TMD: What did you do with the information gathered from the Presidential Search Committee? Have members of the committee met with Ono? 

Denise Ilitch: What we did is we looked at all of the candidates that Sarah talked about and then we started an interview process that we did with the Presidential Search Committee and we narrowed down the candidates with the committee. 

TMD: What were the main takeaways from the listening sessions? How did that impact your decision to select Ono?

SH: The takeaways from the listening sessions were the main attributes we wanted in a president, primarily someone who could really build trust between the broad University community and all its different stakeholders. The top takeaway was someone who was capable, who could do the job and understood how to run a University. We wanted to hire someone who didn’t need training wheels, and the listening sessions really helped us focus on those attributes. 

DI: I would just add that he talked about being a connector of people. One thing I took away from the listening sessions is that our community wants to be heard and they want to be listened to and they want to be connected with, and Ono’s a connector. That was really critical, not only in his style of leadership but also in the way he communicates. We happened to fall in love with the way he communicates, and that he looks at communication in a lot of ways.     

TMD: Were there any qualities that members of the board were looking for in a new president?

SH: Something that was really important to me was someone who had presidential experience. That wasn’t an absolute bottom line, we were still interested in people who had provost experience and dean experience, but someone who had experience as a president for me was very, very important. 

DI: Presidential experience was really a dealbreaker. I was not willing to take the risk of having a person that did not have the experience of running an institution of our size and public. It would have been a very unusual person to make that exception. But for me also it was the healer-in-chief, someone who could take the situation that we’re in now and rebuild trust in our community. 

TMD: How will the board help facilitate the presidential transition and what role do you both plan to play in said transition? 

DI: I think it’ll be business as usual. We’ll try to be as supportive as possible. We’re excited because we believe Ono is a transparent person, he’s a collaborator and he likes to work in partnerships. He has a servant-style leadership, so he has humility and he likes to ask advice and get help and listen. We want to be a strong support system to him and that’s what we’ll do.

SH: I think he’ll also stay in touch with (Interim) President (Mary Sue) Coleman and that transition, and while he wants to be respectful of her retirement, she wants to be sure he gets off on the right foot too. 

TMD: How did the presidential search process change following former President (Mark) Schlissel’s termination? Were you already considering candidates when Schlissel announced his retirement in October?   

SH: Because Schlissel had already announced his retirement we started looking at search firms and started preparing for that process, but it wasn’t until he actually left that we really moved forward with the search committee. We certainly didn’t expect to have to move as quickly as we did. But when we needed to do it, we did. 

DI: Our timing was really good because there’s like five different presidential searches going on right now across the country, and so we’re really happy that we didn’t have to compete with them. We got a little bit ahead of that, and we were able to get the best candidate. 

TMD: What was the biggest challenge in the presidential search process?  

DI: Confidentiality. Most people don’t understand, it’s really about the other candidates, not just the candidate-elect, but those that also were interviewed to protect their privacy because they all have current jobs and everything. 

Interview with President-elect Santa Ono 

TMD: How has your experience as president of the University of Cincinnati and the University of British Columbia prepared you to lead a public research university with a Big Ten athletics program? How has your experience at Cincinnati shaped your relationship with The Ohio State University?

Santa Ono: Oh, that’s a pretty funny question. That’s an in-state rivalry. So like I could ask you ‘What’s the relationship between Michigan and Michigan State?’ I would say that the University of Cincinnati shares that rivalry that Michigan has with Ohio State. You’re not looking at a Buckeye fan. 

As you probably know, the University of British Columbia is gigantic — there are about 71,000 students enrolled there. It’s a very comprehensive research university, like Michigan. I would say there are a lot of transferable skills and experiences between the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan. In terms of D1 sports, you’ve got the Cincinnati Bearcats. I worked really hard to support the coaches and athletic director there. We were able to really pave the way for it to move in conference realignment in the Big 12. Michigan and Cincinnati were both the Final Four teams in the college football playoffs. So I think I have pretty good experience in terms of D1 sports as well.

TMD: Over the past two years, the University has seen the firing of two of the highest positions in the administration: former University President Mark Schlissel for an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate and former Provost Martin Philbert for sexual misconduct. In light of this, how do you plan to regain community trust in the University administration?

SO: Well, like we’re doing right now, making it a priority to speak with you on my very first day — one of the few publications that I’m doing that with — that, hopefully is a signal to you of the kind of relationship I want to have with the students at the University. So I’m going to continue to be available. Hopefully, we can have regular conversations, but also with other student leaders and student groups. And that’s the foundation for trust: to listen and to work together to understand the concern, so that’s how I intend to do it.

TMD: The previous University administration received criticism from the One University campaign for allegedly not providing enough support to the Flint and Dearborn campuses and causing subsequent budget cuts. As president, how do you plan to engage with all three University campuses and do you plan to have a more hands-on approach to the Flint and Dearborn campuses than your predecessors? 

SO: I come from institutions that have multiple campuses. The University of British Columbia has another significant campus in the interior of the province called the Okanagan. I spent time at both campuses. We were also launching additional campuses in Surrey, and expanding its presence in downtown Vancouver. So the only answer to your question is that you’ve got to spend time there. If you’re not present, then those communities will feel that you’re not invested in them. So I will spend time in Flint and Dearborn, but they have great leaders, they have chancellors, and they need my support and they will have my ear and they will have my support. 


Daily News Editors Anna Fifelski and George Weykamp can be reached at afifelsk@umich.edu and gweykamp@umich.edu