Michigan hires Santa Ono as president

Leading US public institution, six months after firing Schlissel over affair claims, gets top academic voice on equity from UBC

July 14, 2022
Source: Roger Hart, Michigan Photography
Santa Ono

The University of Michigan has hired Santa Ono as its new president, luring from the University of British Columbia a leading academic voice in areas including race relations and climate action.

Professor Ono will become Michigan’s first leader of Asian descent when he takes office in October, after six years as president and vice-chancellor at UBC in his hometown of Vancouver.

After winning the unanimous approval of Michigan’s board of regents, Professor Ono – a molecular immunologist and professor of paediatrics – called it “a singular honor to be chosen to lead such an extraordinary institution”.

Professor Ono also cited personal reasons for the move, saying he wanted to be closer to his elderly parents in Baltimore and to his wife’s mother in Nova Scotia. “After several decades of taking care of us, it’s our turn to take care of them,” he wrote in a note to the UBC community.

The move also brings a doubling in pay for the 59-year-old academic, from about C$600,000 (£400,000) annually at UBC to a base salary of $975,000 (£820,000) at Michigan.

While Professor Ono was accepting the offer in Ann Arbor, his colleagues back at UBC lavished praise on their outgoing leader, citing his role in raising more than C$200 million for student scholarships, and his dedicated work in areas of indigenous advancement, fighting systemic racism and creating a climate action plan.

The University of Michigan, founded in 1817, has more than 65,000 undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students. UBC, founded in 1908, has about 70,000 students in Vancouver and Kelowna, British Columbia.

Professor Ono will replace Mary Sue Coleman, a former Michigan president who returned in an interim role in January after the board fired Mark Schlissel from the presidency over allegations that he engaged in a sexual relationship with an employee.

While Michigan remains one of the world’s top-ranked research institutions, it also has students, faculty and alumni who believe that Professor Schlissel tolerated systemic abuses that go well beyond his personal relationship with the single employee.

A naturalised US citizen, Professor Ono was born in Vancouver to parents who emigrated from Japan and also lived with him in Philadelphia and Baltimore. His father was a mathematics professor at UBC.

Professor Ono earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in experimental medicine from McGill University. He also served as president of the University of Cincinnati, and as senior vice-provost at Emory University, and taught at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and UCL.

Michigan began its presidential search in February, using the Boston-based executive search firm Isaacson Miller. One expert in presidential contracts, Judith Wilde, a research professor in policy and government at George Mason University, told The Detroit News that Michigan likely would pay the company more than $300,000 for its work, calling it “one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive contracts, we have ever seen”.


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