The Michigan Daily sat down with new University President Santa Ono on Tuesday afternoon for his first formal interview since officially taking office last Friday. Ono discussed his priorities for the administration, the University’s Climate Action Plan and his plans for engaging with student organizations on campus.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Michigan Daily: From city council member to senator to university president, the beginning of a tenure of a public servant often sets the tone for the goals of the administration and the work yet to come. To help our university community understand what to expect from your administration, what are your priorities for your first 100 days as president of the University of Michigan?
Santa Ono: The most important thing is for me to meet with different parts of the institution; that’s why I am thrilled that we are meeting in the first several days of my time here. As you know, I have been on campus for about four or five days, and I am meeting with people in formal meetings, but I am also out and about. For example, I went to the Michigan Union recently, and I’ve also been to the Michigan League. I am also having meetings with all kinds of individuals around the entire institution, including going to Flint later this week for the regents meeting. It has been a whirlwind of activity, but it hasn’t just started in the past four or five days. It has been three months since the announcement. I have put in hundreds of hours of Zoom meetings and a couple of visits, and had a chance to meet leadership with the student government, but also the Faculty Senate and some of the unions. And so, to answer your question, the priorities are to first listen and then inform my priorities based upon what I learn from that.
TMD: Throughout your tenure as President-elect, you were active on social media trying to engage with student groups on campus. Now that you have officially stepped into the role of president, how do you plan to engage with students here on campus?
SO: So you probably noticed that I have actually enhanced the level of engagement on social media. Just in the past hour, I got about 12 direct messages from students and staff and faculty, so that seems to be continuing and is a medium where people feel comfortable interacting with me, which is great.
Now that I’m on the ground here, there’ll be more face-to-face interactions. On Wednesday, I’ll be on both Central and North Campuses meeting with students. I hope to also drop in on classes and other venues so I can interact with people spontaneously.
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TMD: Over the past few years, the Board of Regents has taken steps to facilitate the process of ratifying new unions. Despite these steps to improve labor relations on campus, the University has still seen numerous stalled negotiations and a strike since 2020. What do you view as your role in working with the unions and how do you envision the University’s relationship with labor on campus?
SO: I’ve come from two other universities that have many unions. One thing that’s really important is that I don’t interfere with the processes and policies around the negotiating table. I won’t do that. But I think it’s very meaningful for me to meet and listen to leaders and unions, and I’ve started to do that and I hope to continue to do that. It’s got to be something where it is really clear that the agreed-upon procedures of negotiating and bargaining are adhered to.
TMD: At the University of Cincinnati, you were active in promoting the school’s athletics. How do you view your role in approaching issues like name, image and likeness (NIL) in college sports, especially when some critics have claimed that Michigan Athletics has fallen behind other schools in NIL?
SO: Yeah, it’s pretty early days in terms of NIL. The great thing is that all the great universities that are part of the Big Ten are having these conversations, so I don’t think it makes sense for one university to go off on their own.
There are issues of parity, issues of values that are embedded in those decisions, and there are legal issues as well that are jurisdictional from state to state. So a president has to be involved because these are major decisions. One of my roles as president is to understand the landscape and to understand the specific jurisdictional policies and laws, and also to be a team player in all NCAA sports.
TMD: Can you speak on what values specifically you want to see inform these NIL decisions?
SO: We have a broad spectrum of sports here at the University with different positions and different teams, which brings certain ethical considerations in the recruitment of athletes. What Michigan values is that we can do things in a way that we can be proud of, so being in compliance with the NCAA is one thing that is really important to me.
With NIL, certain players are more prominent than others, but the success of a team isn’t just the quarterback or the wide receiver or the running back who might have more popularity in the NIL space — the whole team is important. J.J. McCarthy has done something, which I think is indicative of Michigan values, to donate his NIL earnings to his offensive line and that’s something I applaud.
TMD: You are coming to not only the University but also the state of Michigan as a representative of a public university, in the middle of a particularly contentious election cycle. What race or issue do you view as the most important going into November?
SO: I think it is really important for me as a president of a university with a diversity of views to not insert my own particular personal views into any kind of election, or anytime, actually, as president. I think it is really important for me to facilitate and support active debate and to encourage people to vote. Unfortunately, I have only just arrived and there appears to be a 30-day residency requirement for me to vote, so I just miss being able to vote. But, I am going to encourage people to vote and to be involved in the democratic process of opining about and advocating for things that they believe in.
TMD: The University of Michigan has been plagued recently with sexual misconduct scandals, from the decades-long allegations against former athletic doctor Robert Anderson to more recent allegations against former American Culture Professor Bruce Conforth. What are the biggest problems you see in terms of sexual misconduct at the University? And, how do you plan to begin to rectify them?
SO: Having been president to other universities, I can tell you that sexual misconduct is pervasive. It is not just in this sector, but it is in every sector of society. It is not just at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, it is a very important thing to address, and I plan to be actively involved in addressing the situation here. We have been hard at work over the past three months and intensively over the past several days. You should stay tuned for the actions that I will take and statements that I will make regarding this issue, but it is a little bit early for me to say. But I have, during the three months, listened and talked to many people who have made it clear that this is something important for me to address, and I will do so.
TMD: In August, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) released a statement criticizing a May 2014 trip to Israel you went on as president of the University of Cincinnati. SAFE also criticized an April 2022 decision of yours to decline to have the University of British Columbia divest from companies located in the West Bank. What do you have to say to these criticisms and how do you plan on engaging students on both sides of this very contentious issue?
SO: The trip that we went on to Israel when I was president of the University of Cincinnati was really focused on technology, innovation and academic linkages. There are great universities in Israel, and I’ve visited universities across the world. I understand that there are challenges and tensions in the Middle East, but I also stand behind the fact that there are very strong meaningful relationships that that institution and many other institutions have with universities in Israel.
TMD: The University is currently in a transition period between diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, with the next five-year plan to be announced in 2023. What role do you plan to play in DEI 2.0? What do you believe DEI looks like at the University?
SO: I plan to play a direct role, because I think it’s one of the most important things happening not only on this campus but all university campuses, and is in fact an issue for every institution. Systematic racism is everywhere and it is something that gets in the way of an individual’s mobility.
I strongly believe that universities should be places where we take on systemic racism head-on because we work with such a diverse group of students, faculty and staff. I want each and every one of them to feel embraced and have equal opportunities in terms of their education and or the mobility of their career. With both 1.0 and moving forward to 2.0. I think it’s really important for it to be clear that I’m behind and supportive of this. I will be looking at the output from DEI 1.0 with great interest.
TMD: How do you feel as a person of Color stepping into this role at a predominantly white institution?
SO: I’ve actually been very touched by many expressions of outreach to me, from BIPOC, faculty, staff, students and alumni. Individuals have taken photographs of the president’s house and said that I’m the first person of Color to occupy that house and what it means to them. The responsibility I feel is for those individuals who say that it matters to them that there is a person of Color for the first time being president at the University of Michigan. Beyond that, there’s also a responsibility to represent and support every person on campus.
I’m going to do my very best to integrate all of that, and be supportive of the diversity of individuals on the campus, but also be mindful and selective of moments where my ethnicity might be helpful to support things like DEI 2.0.
TMD: The previous administration received criticism of its handling of climate activism on campus, but then received praise for the historic President’s Commission on carbon neutrality. How do you plan on engaging with student climate activists and supporting these initiatives?
SO: At the University of British Columbia, I helped support the creation of a climate hub, financially and otherwise. In general, I am energized by the activism of students. It is because of the activism of students that I declared a climate emergency at the University of British Columbia. I am looking forward to interacting with students because I share their concern about the climate during this emergency. I wish to speak more to this in my opening remarks at the regents meeting.
TMD: Is there anything you plan to do differently in achieving the university’s carbon neutrality goals than your predecessor or than the current U-M plan?
SO: I think there is a lot of great work happening here. I have read the carbon neutrality plan; I intend to support, maybe accelerate it. I plan to continue my advocacy at the global level. I was the second lead of the University Climate Change Coalition. The first lead was Janet Napolitano, who was the secretary of Homeland Security and then president of the University of California. And so I plan to continue to have that kind of global leadership, which I understand is something that many, many members of the University of Michigan community want me to do.
TMD: At the September regents meeting, former Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman said that U-M Flint has seen an over 30% drop in enrollment since 2014. How do you plan to engage with the plan to improve U-M Flint’s numbers during your tenure as president?
SO: I was just with the chancellor of U-M Flint earlier today, and we have been speaking about that. He’s a very talented individual and the plan is still under development. It would not be me to dictate what happens. I respect the fact that both of those campuses have a chancellor, but as the president of the system, I will work directly with them to support them in their plans. It will be data-driven, there will be consultations and it will take some time, but my role is to be supportive of him.
TMD: Two seats on the Board of Regents are up for re-election this fall. How do you plan on working with the incoming regents? How do you plan on working with the current members of the board during your tenure?
SO: It’s very possible that those seats will be retained by the incumbents, and we have to wait to see what happens with the election. I have had a wonderful relationship with all eight during the past three months. We have regular communication, and if there are new regents, I will spend a little bit more time because I think one of the important things a university has to do is to onboard new regents in an appropriate way and make sure that they understand the complexities of a $17 billion enterprise.
TMD: Do you plan to live in the President’s House on South University Avenue?
SO: Not just me! My wife and my dog Romeo, he’s a puppy, we intend to live there. I look forward to it because it’s the University’s house, not the president’s house, even if it might be called that. I look forward to welcoming faculty, staff and other students and alumni to have other conversation.
TMD: Before being accepted to the University of Michigan, every prospective student has to answer the question “Why Michigan?” As the 15th president of the University, why is Michigan the place for you?
SO: Because the people are incredible. They are electric. They energize me every day.
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