University of Michigan President Santa Ono speaks while sitting at a desk in the Ruthven Building.
University of Michigan President Santa Ono answers questions in an exclusive interview with Michigan Daily news reporters Tuesday evening in the Ruthven Building. Maria Deckmann/Daily. Buy this photo.

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The Michigan Daily sat down with University President Santa Ono Tuesday to discuss working with students and the expansion of both on-campus housing and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He also spoke about his favorite parts of Mosher-Jordan’s dining hall and his order at Pizza House.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Daily: The University of Michigan is currently in the midst of negotiations with the Graduate Employees’ Organization. How do you feel about the progress you’ve made with GEO, such as the agreements you made on meeting logistics and deciding that a mediator was no longer needed? What are your hopes for the rest of the negotiations?

Santa Ono: I’m not directly involved in the negotiations; that’s led by University Provost Laurie McCauley and Academic Human Resources. I have tremendous confidence in that team. And with any negotiation, there’s a back and forth that occurs. But I understand that things are moving in the right direction. I really want there to be a resolution and I want there to be strong support for our graduate students. They are an incredibly vital and important part of the University.

TMD: DEI 1.0 recently concluded and DEI 2.0 has begun. At the event covering the DEI 1.0 Evaluation Report, you spoke of hopes that DEI 2.0 can expand to the state level. How do you hope the University can achieve this? What are your expectations for DEI 2.0?

SO: So I want to clarify — that was in the quote from an interview with The Michigan Daily, but it was kind of taken a little bit out of context. It wasn’t that I would want to see the University’s DEI efforts go statewide. It was more that I felt that to achieve some of the objectives of the University, and also some of the objectives from the Black Student Union, that we would have to expand some of our existing Effective Pathways, like Wolverine Pathways, to more places throughout the state and perhaps outside the state of Michigan as well. So it wasn’t so much, you know, scaling what we’re doing here to the state. We have to engage with additional schools and high schools and different cities for us to achieve the diversity that we want to see here on our campuses.

TMD: In November, you visited the Trotter Multicultural Center. How often do you plan on visiting the Multicultural Center or other spaces like this? How will you increase and support the diversity of the University community?

SO: I loved my time when I visited the Multicultural Center, and part of it has to do with how often they want to see me there. I was invited to that meeting and I was happy to go. Students are very busy and all of the different centers and organizations on campus are very busy, so I don’t want to impose myself. If I hear that they want me to come again, I would be happy to.

TMD: Will there be any collaboration between the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses about DEI 2.0 and future DEI initiatives?

SO: The strategic visioning process, that I hope students received an email about (on Tuesday), is meant to apply to the entire University, not just the Ann Arbor campus. I’ve had a chance to be at the Flint campus and the Dearborn campus, and they’re an important part of the University. All three campuses have a commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And so, there are initiatives that are happening on all three campuses … So yes, the DEI 1.0 and 2.0 projects encompass all three campuses.

TMD: What are your hopes and expectations for the Flint Transformation Plan? How often do you currently visit the Flint/Dearborn campuses?

SO: I’ve been here for three and a half months, and I’ve visited both campuses twice, so I don’t know whether I can maintain that frequency. Faculty and staff (involved with) leadership on both campuses have said that’s quite a high frequency of visitation compared to some of my peers. I love going to both campuses, so I will try my very best to continue visiting. I’m planning to go to the Dearborn campus again pretty soon. I would say that frequent visits are important for me. I think the faculty, staff and students appreciate my presence, so I will do my very best.

TMD: In November, not long after you took office, the Black Student Union released their “More Than Four” platform, calling on the University to, one, increase Black student enrollment from its current level of 4% of the student population, two, combat anti-Blackness, three, improve DEI policies and, four, invest in K-12 education to increase equity. How do you as University president plan to address each of these points?

SO: I’m one person, and I’m very committed to and I’ve been very public that I support all sorts of those initiatives. I’ve met with the BSU and there is going to be a pretty robust and intense process for leadership within an institution. There are about 30 individuals at the University that will be engaging with the (BSU’s platform), and there will be committees that are focused on all four of those requests and our commitments. These committees will come back to me by the end of the semester with their recommendations on actions that we can take as a University to actually make progress toward each of those four recommendations. The collaborative approaches to each of those recommendations involve leadership and students, which is a different paradigm. It used to be that students would make requests and administration would go away, and time would pass and (administration) would come back (with recommendations). In this case, it’s a collaborative effort where students and administrators are coming together and really working together to achieve each of those objectives.

TMD: Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) has greatly altered college athletics, and Michigan’s NIL opportunities have lagged behind other universities like Texas A&M, Alabama and Ohio State, to name a few. What changes to Michigan’s NIL system would you like to see, and what role do you plan to take in making those changes?

SO: I’m not sure it’s actually true that we lag behind those schools. There is a perception among some that that’s the case, but if you actually look at the Jersey Licensing Program, the University of Michigan was at the forefront of that program, which is a big part of NIL. We’re very fortunate that there have been three or four collectives that have been involved, and we’re very grateful for the passionate support of individuals who are donating to those collectives to support our student-athletes. I’m not sure that we’re lagging — the support and donations of people who care about our student-athletes and the Wolverine teams has been very generous. You may have heard that the athletic director, Warde Manuel, sent out a communication to supporters of Wolverine Athletics, encouraging them to support student-athletes through those collectives, and that had an immediate impact. There has already been an uptick in support of our programs through those collectors and those individuals leading those collectives are already speaking with each other. 

How will I personally be involved? I will be there to listen to and then to provide advice that might be helpful to (the athletic director) as they stand up those initiatives. It’s very important to the University that we do things right and we remain in compliance with the NCAA and the law. I’ll play that advisory role as they stand things up, but this is really in the domain of the athletic director, and Warde Manuel is doing a great job interfacing with the leadership of those collectives. He has my full support.

TMD: The University recently announced the construction of a new residential and dining complex on Elbel Field. What hopes do you have for this new residence hall and the improvement of student housing availability on or near Central Campus? What kind of change do you think this new residence hall will bring to campus culture?

SO: We haven’t built a freshman residence hall for a long time. There have been some for upper-class students, juniors and seniors, and we desperately need more first-year housing. If you look at the student body, even though there hasn’t been a rapid uptick in the size of the student body, we now have about 8,000 more students than when the last freshman dorm was built. And so there’s a huge demand for residence halls. Some of our residence halls, especially on North Campus, are very old, and some have been taken offline. So that exacerbates the need to meet the growing student population by building these new residence halls. 

I’m very excited that we’re doing this. I think it’s long overdue. The first phase of the project is quite ambitious. And you may know that we’ve got about 2,300 new beds in what will be, I think, one of the most beautiful residence halls that I’ve seen anywhere on any college campus in the United States. We are planning eventually to have a second phase that will increase even more the number of beds that we have for first-year students, so I’m very excited. There’s going to have been tremendous thought into what they will look like, the kinds of community rooms and practice rooms and study spaces, and what the dining area will look like. And so we’re really taking a lot of time to build something that will endure and really have a positive impact on the student experience.

TMD: The future North Campus residence hall replacing the Northwood III buildings is planned to use geo-exchange heating; however, the project has been paused. Does the University have plans to expand similar sustainability actions to other residence halls?

SO: Absolutely. And not only residence halls, other building projects. Myself and the Board of Regents and Geoffrey Chatas, our chief financial officer, we are doubling down. And, as you probably know through our conversations with students that are involved in climate action and the voices of carbon neutrality, we’re engaging with (students) often. And we are institutionally stepping up our commitment to achieve carbon neutrality, even more critically than we had announced in the publication of that report from the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality. So if it isn’t clear, we will do everything we can with everything that we build and even refurbishing to achieve those goals quicker than we had originally intended. You will hear regular announcements from us about the steps that we’re taking to achieve those goals.

TMD: You recently met with Voices for Carbon Neutrality. What did you take away from this meeting and how do you plan to work with student groups on campus to achieve the University’s carbon neutrality goals?

SO: I know that I’ve met with student groups, and I tend to meet with them regularly. We intend to have individuals from the Voices for Carbon Neutrality and other student groups heavily involved as we think through the implementation of some of the objectives and recommendations that are in the report. And, you know, we are making progress in hiring the director, the chief sustainability officer, which is one of the promises that was made and we hope to involve members of the community in identifying and interviewing those candidates. We want to continue this engagement and we want to achieve these goals together.

TMD: We’ve seen you take an active role in retaining the services of coaching staff for Michigan athletics, which has traditionally been the domain of Athletic Director Warde Manuel. What is your relationship with Warde from a work standpoint, and what do you consider your role in filling those leadership positions within athletics?

SO: So I’ve been a university president for over a decade, and you know that I was the President of University of Cincinnati and the President of University of British Columbia. And so it actually isn’t traditional that the president has no role, especially with respect to the recruitment and retention of head coaches. It’s pretty common that presidents collaborate with athletic directors to either recruit or retain individuals of that caliber. And so my relationship with Warde Manuel is fantastic. As I said when I was announced as president, I think he is the best athletic director in North America. I’ve worked with many. And I knew him when I was president of the University of Cincinnati, and he was athletic director for University of Connecticut. We were actually rivals, and so I experienced firsthand how good he is because of that rivalry between the University of Connecticut and the University of Cincinnati. So I have the utmost respect for him, and I think he’s doing a fantastic job. The extent to which I can be helpful, to support him run a successful program, I’ll be involved.

TMD: The campus community has expressed hope that your administration would help establish trust with students and the University. You recently announced that you would be aiding in the creation of a central ethics office. How specifically do you think this new office will improve trust in administration in the future?

SO: Well, the actual terms of reference and governance of the office are not being created by myself, but through a consultation process. And so, Tamiko Strickland and Tim Lynch are actually (conducting that process), and I’m also personally listening to the input and feedback of the community and we’re using that. It also involves the Board of Regents as well, and the Senate Advisory Council on University Affairs and student groups. We’re taking that into account in actually setting up the office. So that’s the first, I think important, step in building trust. It’s not for us to just decide on our own what the office should be and what its terms of reference should be, but really listen to the wishes of the community.

TMD: Several student organizations have reported feeling happy with your interactions with the study body on campus. Before your administration began, many student organizations expressed hope that you would interact with them more directly. How often do you engage with student organizations? How do you choose which students to engage with?

SO: I engage with students almost every day. Like today, I just crossed over the bridge and ate with students in the dining hall, which was a great experience. I’m very happy to interact with students, and will I continue to do so? Absolutely. It gives me energy. It reminds me of the reason why I’m here. I think faculty, staff and administration of this university exist to do everything we can to educate and support the development of students. That’s the reason for all of us.

I have always done this. If you look back to how I was as president of the University of Cincinnati, I’ve always been student-centered. I’m never going to change. So it’s going to be like this for as long as I’m here.

How do I decide which groups I interact with? Well, student groups email me all the time. Sometimes they direct message me on Twitter or Instagram. I ask them to please email me, and it goes into my office, and (my office) works some magic to try to figure out how to make things work. So part of it has to do with whether I have a conflict when (student groups) want me to appear for something. I think tomorrow I’m going to be a judge at a talent show, that worked! And I really am trying to go to each of the different sports events. There’s lots of sports there, I think 29 sports, so it’s gonna take me a little time. But I don’t only go to football — I go to women’s gymnastics, I go to tennis, and so eventually I’ll get around to supporting all the teams. It’s going to take me a little bit of time because of the other responsibilities I have.

TMD: Which dining hall did you attend?

SO: The one over the bridge was pretty good, Mosher-Jordan Dining Hall. There’s a pasta station, there’s burgers … My favorite part of Mojo is that you can get Dole Whip there … But for me it was just really great because usually I’m pretty programmed from 8 o’clock until 9 o’clock and I might pass by and see students, but, when you’re actually having lunch and they stop and sit down next to you, you just have a different quality of conversation, and that’s really energizing for me. I love it.

TMD: What lessons have you learned from past administrations that you have taken into your own administration? How do you think this has helped you?

SO: I was just looking at a book of the history of the University of Michigan and this University has had real icons, internationally renowned presidents. You may know, Mary Sue Coleman is one of the best presidents any college has ever seen, and I’m very fortunate to have a close relationship with her. We talk to each other on the phone, we Zoom with each other, she gives me a great perspective and historical knowledge of what it means to be from the University of Michigan. And so I really value that relationship. 

But there are many other predecessors that are titans in academic leadership: Lee Bollinger, who’s just stepping down as president of Columbia University; Harold Shapiro, who was president here and went to Princeton, shares with me the fact that we’re both educated at McGill University, so you have had two Canadian presidents here at the University of Michigan; Jim Duderstadt, who still goes to work every day at the Duderstadt Building on North Campus. I just had a chance to meet him, he emails me regularly and he talks about the fact that relationships between past presidents and current presidents can be really, really helpful and he’s given me great perspective. 

There’s been a great history here, and I think I’ve benefited from that … All the former presidents have very interesting histories and they lead the University of Michigan, in many cases, in very difficult times, when the University didn’t have the resources that it has today. And so they have all played a role, and sort of passed the baton, from one person to the other, to protect and to strengthen what I believe to be one of the best universities anywhere. I’ve learned a lot from not only those who I have met, but the history of what my predecessors have done to make the University what it is today. So I owe a debt of gratitude to them.

TMD: How do you feel about your inevitable move into the President’s House?

SO: I don’t know if it’s ever gonna get done! I’ll be excited, because my wife and I, Wendy and I, and our dog Romeo, will open up the President’s House. It’s not our house, it’s the University’s house. And so I hope to welcome The Michigan Daily to it, all kinds of different groups will be there. I can’t wait for the traditional ice cream freshmen welcome, where apparently, hundreds or thousands of students come through and walk through the house. I can’t wait for that. You know, the President’s House is the oldest, if not one of the oldest, buildings from the original campus, and it will really honor that history. I think it’s good for students and faculty and staff to spend time in the University’s house. It should be renamed — it shouldn’t be called the President’s House, it should be called the University’s house. And it should be kind of like the salon and living room or den for everyone. I mean, I used to welcome people to watch the Super Bowl with me. And so I’m looking forward to all of that. Because I’m not able to do that right now.

TMD: Have you visited Ann Arbor’s Pizza House? And if so, what was your order?

SO: Yes, I have. I’m so happy, because I went to the University of Chicago, and although this is quite a debatable opinion … I love Chicago pizza. And so it was confirmed by a friend of mine who went to college with me at the University of Chicago, and her husband works at the Ross library … he said it’s the best Chicago pizza in Michigan. I love Pizza House … So if you like Chicago pizza, that’s the place to go. 

Editors-in-Chief Shannon Stocking and Kate Weiland can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu  and kmwblue@umich.edu.  Daily News Editor Riley Hodder can be reached at rehodder@umich.edu.