While universities typically evolve gradually over time, they may also see periods of sudden, rapid change that open new horizons and set them on a decisive trajectory.
In his inauguration as the University of Michigan’s 15th president, Santa J. Ono said he plans to usher in one of those eras of change.
“Today, it is time for a new vision, a new punctuation, a new opening of possibilities for the University of Michigan. It is time to dare great challenges and dream bold dreams. As we envision, imagine and aspire, we will also build,” said Ono, who was officially inaugurated March 7 after serving as president since Oct. 14, 2022.
Following university tradition, the day kicked off with morning symposia, events across campus, and an academic procession. The afternoon installation ceremony took place before a packed Hill Auditorium audience that included Ono’s family and dignitaries from the community, state and higher education.
As people filed into their seats, a video played onstage featuring photos of Ono cheering for the Wolverines at sporting events, talking with students on campus and meeting with leaders at university events. Rows of faculty members and representatives from more than 70 academic institutions donned academic regalia and joined members of the campus community sporting maize and blue knit caps.
Provost Laurie McCauley emphasized the significance of Ono’s inauguration, referencing the impact of earlier presidents who served throughout more than two centuries. As the university’s new leader, she said, Ono will have the responsibility of guiding U-M’s interactions with changes and challenges in society.
McCauley said the university will benefit from Ono’s diverse background and career in academia. Above all, she said, Ono’s character makes him a perfect fit for the university.
“He is a compassionate person invigorated by giving to those in need, giving his undivided attention, and giving students high fives,” she said. “I am confident in saying that he is the leader we need, and he is arriving just at the right time.”
Victor J. Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine, said Ono embodies U-M’s motto: “Artes, Scientia, Verita” or “Arts, Knowledge, Truth.”
He said Ono is an accomplished cellist and champion of the liberal arts and humanities who, as a trained immunologist and researcher, continues to seek opportunities to expand his knowledge and won’t shy away from speaking the truth.
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said U-M empowers students with the tools to become problem solvers and empathetic leaders who strive to make a difference for their communities. He told Ono that his mission, and challenge, as president will be to carry forth this mission and “feed the flame of education that shines a light on our path forward.”
Hanna Holborn Gray, president emerita of the University of Chicago, who presented Ono with his bachelor’s degree nearly four decades ago, said the world of higher education today is struggling with a sense of crisis. There is conflict over the performance and quality of institutions and whether they can make good on their promises.
Speaking to Ono, Gray said, “You understand the current problems very well, and you will confront them, as you have always done, with determination and openness, with patience and courage.”
Board of Regents Chair Paul Brown said Ono’s leadership and vision will enrich the campus community. When the Presidential Search Committee was formed, he said, Michigan students, faculty, staff and alumni informed it of the qualities they sought in a president: trust, integrity, emotional intelligence and the ability to engage with all members of the Michigan family. Brown said Ono possesses all of these qualities and more.
Other speakers included:
- Carolina Duan, doctoral candidate, LSA.
- Sarah Hubbard, vice chair of the Board of Regents.
- Earl Lewis, director and founder of the Center for Social Solutions and Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor.
- Allen Liu, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.
- Noah Zimmerman, undergraduate student and president of Central Student Government.
In his inaugural address, Ono applauded the university’s exceptional faculty and staff, outstanding medical center and extraordinary academic legacy. He said the U-M community’s commitment to inclusion and excellence, discovery and integrity will be integral in confronting challenges in the years to come.
“Today, I submit that the world needs the University of Michigan more than ever,” Ono said. “For everywhere we look, we see a world in distress, with tensions rising and conflicts raging.”
But in order to look to solutions abroad, he said, the university must acknowledge the challenges at home.
Ono acknowledged U-M’s history of excluding and segregating individuals on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, religious faith and sexual identity. He said he is proud of the efforts the university has made to advance diversity, equity and inclusion across the campus, and there is much more to be done.
“This process of self-discovery will be difficult, painful, but is crucial for acknowledging our past in a truthful way with clear eyes in plain sight, we can better move forward together with a firm step,” he said.
Ono said efforts like the Inclusive History Project, the Wolverine Pathways program, and DEI initiatives are making strides in increasing justice, inclusion and diversity on campus.
Over the next year, Ono said, the U-M community will engage in a collective process to imagine the university’s future and chart the course ahead. Working together, he said, will spark a new era of change.
“I am certain that by constantly discovering, learning, connecting, aspiring, we can transform our world, just as we have for 200 years,” Ono said. “Let us come together like never before to address the world’s most pressing challenges, live our best traditions as a university, and create a future beyond our dreams.”
Another focus of Ono’s is well-being. U-M has made strides in supporting the full health and well-being of faculty, staff and students, which include adopting the Okanagan Charter and establishing the Well-being Collective.
“Student health and well-being will be – is – one of my highest priorities as president,” he said. “The students that we love, Generation Z is facing a wave of anxiety and depression disorders, partially because of the pandemic. It’s a challenge our students, staff and faculty face every day.”
Ono concluded his speech by addressing the climate emergency. He said U-M has a legacy as a leader in environment education, research and action, and the community will continue to fight “the existential challenge of our time.”
“Our world is facing the fiery challenge of our time, as well as others ranging from aging populations to the ongoing rise of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. Together, let us find solutions to these challenges, just like the University of Michigan has done for centuries,” he said.