The Ono presidency begins


Today marks the end of a week and the start of a new administration at the University of Michigan.

Santa J. Ono, U-M’s 15th president, has experienced campus life in myriad ways — as the child of a faculty member, as an undergraduate who worked in food services, as a graduate student, postdoc and accomplished biomedical researcher, and as an administrator whose resume includes the presidencies of two other major universities.

Portrait of U-M President Santa J. Ono
Santa J. Ono is the 15th president of the University of Michigan. (Photo by Paul Joseph, UBC Brand & Marketing)

He arrives at U-M at a time of challenge and promise.

The Board of Regents unanimously voted July 13 to appoint Ono, who has served as president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia since 2016. Before that he was provost and then president of the University of Cincinnati.

Ono, who is 59 and of Japanese heritage, is the first Asian American to lead U-M. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grew up in Pennsylvania and Maryland, earning a bachelor’s degree in biological science at the University of Chicago and a doctorate in experimental medicine from McGill University in Montreal.

He has taught at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and University College London. While at the University of Cincinnati, he also served as a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. At U-M, he also is a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences in the Medical School.

Ono spoke recently in a joint interview with the editors of The University Record and Michigan Today. This is that conversation.

What issues, initiatives or areas will you focus on as you start your tenure as U-M’s 15th president?

I’m starting off talking to a lot of the different members of the University of Michigan community, and so to answer your question, that’s going to inform what I do. I have enormous respect for the faculty, staff, students and alumni of the University of Michigan, so it would be a mistake for me to come out of the gate and say, “This is what I’m going to do.” My most important first job is to listen to the community. They understand what’s special about Michigan and that has to inform what I’m going to do, even in the first year.

Having said that, I’ve already had a chance to talk to many people over the past three months, which is really an advantage and something I’m fortunate to have done. I’ve spoken to the entire leadership team, the executive officers, and to the deans of all three campuses. I’ve met with most of them, and those who I haven’t met with I will be meeting.

Photo of Santa J. Ono talking with people at a tailgate party
President Santa J. Ono speaks with members of the U-M community, including Provost Laurie McCauley (right), at a tailgate party that he attended during a recent visit to campus. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

I’ve spoken to many outstanding faculty members and staff and students — so I think I can hit the ground running to some extent. There’s more conversation that needs to take place, but there are certain things that I have heard that I think are essential that I focus on in the first several months and the first year.

Beyond getting to know everyone — and getting to know what the ethos and dreams and passions are of the community — one of the things that’s very clear to me is that excellence in everything Michigan does is something that is dear and important to everyone. That’s something that attracted me first of all to Michigan: that commitment to excellence. If you think about the core mission of the institution — the scholarship, teaching and the research — Michigan excels in each of these different areas. And I’ve heard from faculty, staff, students and alumni that they want to make sure I do my level best to make Michigan even better, to the extent that is possible.

So early on, one of the things that I would like to do — and I’ve already been working with  (Vice President for Research) Rebecca Cunningham and (Provost) Laurie McCauley and two chancellors (Deba Dutta of UM-Flint and Domenico Grasso of UM-Dearborn) — to really think about approaches and mechanisms that the university can implement that will celebrate those successes, so that all the successes that are occurring on a daily basis are recognized, both within the institution and globally. So part of it is really focused on telling the story of Michigan — in partnership with you — but also by working with different organizations that recognize excellence, making sure the story is known. And so that’s relatively easy because the excellence is already there.

But the second part is really thinking about how we can promote collaboration between the schools and colleges. There are 19 of them. Michigan has almost unmatched disciplinary strength with 110 programs in the top 10.

What’s exciting about Michigan that I can hear from everyone is a desire to really leverage the boundaries of those schools and colleges. It’s going to be part of how we think about resource allocation moving into the future, which is really unique, almost dynamic way to think about an institution. So I want to be someone who facilitates that new kind of a university that builds upon existing strengths, and moves the university to even greater heights.

So, focusing on interdisciplinary teaching, interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary scholarship will be one area.

A second area is thinking about how we partner with other universities, with government, with other nations. One of the important roles of the university president is to be part of that glue, to be the bridge between the University of Michigan and other universities in Michigan, but also across North America and around the world. It’s something I have a lot of personal experience doing, networking with other leaders, so that Michigan can work in synergy with other institutions and other sectors to really positively impact the region and the world.

What would you like faculty and staff to know about how you will relate to and work with them?

There’s a plan — it’s already in my calendar — as to how I’ll do that. I’m really grateful to the Office of the President, and also other officers in Ruthven as well as the deans, in thinking through this strategy. It’s been a co-creation of this approach. It’s not something that’s coming from just myself, but it’s something that we developed in collaboration with others.

So there’s a two-pronged approach.

One is that I intend to visit all three campuses and to visit each of the schools and colleges, personally. For me to visit them, and to work with the leaders of each of those schools and colleges to think about what my agenda will be during, let’s say, the half day or day that I spend with each of those different communities within the university.

Photo of Santa J. Ono walking and talking with students.
President Santa J. Ono talks with students during a recent campus visit. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

So one, it will be a personal, physical visit, and I don’t want to dictate what happens during that time, but one of the things that’s essential is that I meet not only with leadership but also with faculty, staff and students. So there will very likely be in each of those visits an opportunity to engage directly with each of those constituencies. And also interacting with alumni of each of those schools and colleges will be very important as well.

The second approach is that we’re starting to think about opportunities for me to meet and talk with faculty and students throughout the year. There are events where students will come together, or faculty or staff will come together, with me. But those might be enterprisewide across the entire university, and you need and want to have some of that, too. But I also want to have substantive conversations about what’s happening in each school and college.

So we’re planning dinners where I will sit down and get to know faculty, staff and students to talk about what’s happening in each of those areas of the university directly from them, and for me to learn from that, and to take that away and for me to integrate that into future plans going forward. So a two-pronged approach.

We’ve been talking about academic excellence and research leadership, and we’re looking at how one could elevate those areas that are already quite high. I’m curious if you can say anything specific about industries or partners you are exploring.

We are in conversations about, for example, the Detroit Center for Innovation and the planning for that is in progress. It is, as it should be, a collaboration with the provost leading that discussion about the academic substance of that center, and also involving the deans. And I’ve got to tell you, the deans of University of Michigan are absolutely first-rate. It’s been a joy to interact with them.

Through those conversations, we’re starting to identify areas that will be impactful for the university but also impactful for Detroit, for Michigan, the United States and the world. And it cuts across all the disciplines and the breadth of excellence at the University of Michigan.

It’s not just focused on STEM, although there certainly will be a lot of focus on things such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, things that are directly responsible for the economy of the state of Michigan and for Detroit’s future prosperity. Those will be part of the things I see we have a responsibility as a public university to lead in, as the most research-intensive university in Michigan and one of the most research-intensive universities in the United States for a public university. So Michigan has a unique responsibility with those assets to be a leader.

A student talks with President Santa J. Ono as they tour the Ann Arbor campus recently. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

The arts, and the Arts Initiative and the commitment that President Coleman made, will be a priority for me. I think that focusing on healthy communities and healthy lives is one aspect of what an institution should do. But that part of a healthy society is rooted in universities such as the University of Michigan ensuring that the disciplines that feed the soul and are sort of the cornerstone of just societies — the humanities, the social sciences, the visual and performing arts — continue to thrive.

I can tell you that one of the things that attracted me to Michigan is that it has the full breadth of excellence across those disciplines, and although I am a scientist, I’m a wannabe humanist and musician, and so the excellence in those areas is something that I think Michigan has a responsibility to protect and preserve and to integrate into the formation of good human beings and citizens, and a just society.

You can’t do that with STEM alone. You need to have things like the Arts Initiative. You need to have things like the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and you need to have individuals who are at the boundaries of those different schools that are broadly educated and to bring all that knowledge and experience together. Because that’s what’s needed to ensure just societies.

U-M has dealt with some high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, the fallout from those cases and the efforts to address the broader issues that relate to that. What is your message to the U-M community, recognizing that some people still view the efforts that have gone on with various degrees of skepticism, about how we’ll continue to handle this issue?

First of all, I embrace my responsibility in addressing that situation. I am the incoming president of the University of Michigan, and the president has a very important role to play in repairing that or restoring that trust. As I said at the announcement of my selection: I have to earn that trust. And it’s something I have to earn by first listening to the community. I’ve been doing that over the past three months, and I hope that people see that I’m beginning by listening.

And you have to go beyond listening. You have to, as the president of the institution, take all that information about what we’re doing well and what we need to do moving forward and make sure we implement that as a university, and I will do that.

I have been able to continue to work with the executive officers and the deans and student leadership and staff leadership to make sure we take the necessary steps in the months and years ahead to move the university to a place where we are sensitive and respectful of individuals who have been victims of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. I think it’s terribly traumatic and difficult what happens in those circumstances, so really building a culture of support for victims is going to be a top priority for me.

I have to own that, and I will, and it’s not always easy. It’s a process that takes multiple years, to stand policies and offices and programs up to provide that support and to deal with incidents of sexual misconduct or assault in a fair and proper way. But I’m fully committed to accept that responsibility.

The last thing I’d say is that although the president has a very important role, it’s something that the whole community has to engage in. There has to be the same sort of commitment in every school and college. There has to be a recognition that every faculty member, every staff member and student leaders also have to be at the table to make this right.

U-M’s regional campuses in Flint and Dearborn each are made up of their own distinct communities, have their own strengths, their own challenges. What is your message to them about how they fit into your vision of the University of Michigan?

I’m looking forward to visiting both of the campuses. I’ve had the pleasure of working with both chancellors already and I’ve been following very carefully what’s been happening on both campuses, and I’m excited to get to meet people in person and to understand better their passions and the excellence that exists in all three campuses of the University of Michigan.

So the first message is I can’t wait to meet with the faculty, staff and students of each of those campuses. I’m beginning to understand the unique contributions that each campus makes, and I believe that it makes Michigan a better university to have three unique campuses. So it’s a dialogue that will be continuing throughout the year and during my entire time at the university.

You grew up on a university campus and you’ve obviously seen it from every angle, every perspective: the resident, a student, alumnus, faculty member, president. How does that experience inform your vision of the university enterprise as a whole?

I want to add one thing: I’ve also been a staff member on a university campus. I’ve worked in food services, and I worked in residence halls when I was a student at the University of Chicago. I’ve worked in libraries. So, you know, I understand how important staff are to a great university. That contribution is too often overlooked at every university, so I want to lead off by saying, in addition to being a faculty member, being a president, being a student, I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been a staff member at the university.

You ask how all those experiences would inform how I lead the University of Michigan? The first thing I would say is what I just said — I would like to recognize the staff and the important role they play in the institution. Because whether you’re talking about research or teaching, anything that we do, it wouldn’t be possible without outstanding staff.

Photo of Santa J. Ono and students taking a selfie
President Santa J. Ono joins in a selfie with U-M students during a recent campus visit. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

But my experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student, as an assistant professor, a full professor, a provost, a president, all of that is very useful in supporting all parts of an institution in coming together and being the best university Michigan can be.

It’s kind of like being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. If you are sort of parachuted into the C suite but you don’t know what it’s like to be on the assembly line — or you don’t know what it’s like to be in a dealership, to use the automobile analogy, which I guess is appropriate in Michigan — then, you don’t really understand what every part of the institution contributes. And if you understand what every part of the institution contributes, then you look at it from their lens and their perspective. And the president of the university has to support every part of the institution whether it’s the provost, the deans, the faculty, the staff, or the students.

The biggest mistake a leader can make is to be so far away from any constituency (and) not to be sensitive to their needs. So the way I want to lead is to continue to have those connections on a regular basis, so I hear from (the community) and we do our level best to make Michigan the destination — whether you’re a student, staff member or faculty member, or alumnus — that people remain justifiably proud as they are in being part of the University of Michigan community.

The alumni are such a huge, diverse family. The university means individual things to individual people. All 400,000 of those people think of this place as their own. How do you manage alumni expectations and maintain a connection to people around the world?

Every single one of those alumni, every single person is important. There’s no right or wrong perspective. And so, as the president, or the head of the Alumni Association, or any member of the community, the first thing is to recognize how important the connection is between the university and the alumni of the university. They support the university. They support the students. They support the faculty and staff of the university. So just making sure that link is very strong, and to even broaden that connectivity, is something that will be a priority for me. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with Steve Grafton (retired president and CEO of the Alumni Association) and I have not yet met the incoming head of the Alumni Association (Corie Pauling), but I can’t wait to interact with her. She seems remarkable and outstanding.

It’s incumbent upon all of us to think about the different kinds of alumni that exist and to create programming that resonates with each of them. And that means it’s got to be diverse. There are going to be some alumni that don’t want to be in a formal setting, at a formal dinner. They would rather be — and I’ve done this — they’d rather be bowling with me, or they’d rather be at a pub where I talk to them about what’s happening at Michigan, but I also interact with them in their element, and I’m very comfortable doing that. So to answer your question —  and I think the University of Michigan Alumni Association does it better than anybody — is to constantly think about and ask, “What do you want as an alumnus?” and to evolve the programming interactions so that we connect with them in a meaningful way.

In addition to format, making sure that we continue to go around the globe — and we’re going to do this, we are already planning this — so that we to go to them. It can’t always be that they come back. Obviously, football games are a huge magnet, but there are people in Asia and Europe. There are lots of very important Michigan alumni everywhere. And we will go to them.



  1. Jan Wright
    on October 15, 2022 at 9:04 am

    I am positively impressed by both what I have read about President Ono and what he says in this article. Listening, learning, and connecting different elements of the University are all important. I am very concerned about the absence of one topic, however. The new President has made no mention of the huge challenge of working on climate issues and moving the University to carbon neutrality. Part of this is due to the questions posed by the interviewer, but I wish that he had woven in something about this issue, which may eventually threaten the very existence of the University if it is not vigorously and effectively addressed–and soon.

    I have heard that President Ono is very committed to making UM a leader in addressing the climate crisis and to moving the University rapidly toward carbon neutrality. I very much hope so! There is a great deal of energy in the university community to move this critical work forward and his leadership will be vital to its success.

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