- The University of Michigan on Wednesday selected Santa Ono, a two-time college president and prominent name in higher education leadership, as its next chief executive, a move following a scandal that led to the ouster of former president Mark Schlissel.
- Ono, currently president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, will begin his tenure Oct. 13. He was previously president of the University of Cincinnati for four years.
- He replaces Mary Sue Coleman, a former U of Michigan president who has been the interim leader since January, when the university’s regent board fired Schlissel. Schlissel, who had been president since 2014, was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. He remains a faculty member.
Several sexual abuse scandals have rocked U of Michigan in recent years. An internal investigation revealed its former provost, Martin Philbert, sexually harassed women since arriving at the institution in 1995. The university in November 2020 settled with eight women who accused Philbert of harassment.
And last year, another review found that a late university doctor, Robert Anderson, had sexually assaulted hundreds of students over his nearly 40-year tenure.
The university’s history made the sting of Schlissel’s alleged affair more painful.
When regents fired Schlissel, they said he had violated the university’s policy against supervisor-employee relationships, calling his actions “particularly egregious considering your knowledge of and involvement in addressing incidents of harassment by University of Michigan personnel.”
Schlissel has written that the relationship was consensual and never physical. He added it "did not involve the inappropriate spending of university resources."
Schlissel also came under fire for his early response to the coronavirus pandemic. He was heavily criticized for being out of touch with employees’ needs. They said his COVID-19 policies were opaque and eventually the graduate employees’ union and student resident assistants went on strike.
After Schlissel’s dismissal, U of Michigan professors expressed a desire for a more empathetic leader.
They may have found that in Ono, known for his warm interactions with employees and students and his prolific online presence. As of Wednesday afternoon, he has more than 28,000 followers on Twitter, where he often points out the successes of his current institution, U of British Columbia.
In a 2016 profile of Ono by the Cincinnati Enquirer, a former U of Cincinnati board chair was quoted as saying that “faculty admired him, alumni loved to be around him, students worshiped him and parents felt so comfortable having students at a university where Santa was president. He was so popular because he was able to relate to everybody."
U of Michigan regents unanimously voted for Ono’s presidency Wednesday.
“Several clear and consistent themes emerged in regard to what our community wanted in a new leader,” Denise Ilitch, a regent and co-chair of the presidential search committee, said in a statement. “Someone who could build trust, lead with integrity and actively engage the full range of Michigan’s constituencies. Someone who had strong emotional intelligence and communication and listening skills.”
Ono will be the university’s first Asian American chief executive and 15th person to hold the position. He was born in Vancouver and grew up in Philadelphia and near Baltimore. Ono earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in experimental medicine from McGill University, in Canada.
He has taught at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and University College London.
His research has centered on the immune system, eye inflammation and age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
Ono’s salary will be $975,000 a year. He will also receive $350,000 in deferred compensation starting after his first year, as well as housing, an expense allowance, and a vehicle and driver, the university said.