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U-M President Santa Ono: New ethics office will be truly independent

Santa Ono
Santa Ono is the new University of Michigan president. He sat down with Bridge Michigan to talk about his vision for the future of the university.(Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)
  • Santa Ono said he uses social message to target different constituencies and talk directly to students 
  • He expects to unveil bold plans to address climate change policies next month
  •  He explained what makes the university’s new ethics, integrity and compliance office truly independent, following several scandals

Santa Ono, the new University of Michigan president, has made a splash with his gregarious campus outreach to students and active social media presence. 

“The conversations I'm having, you know span the gamut of teaching, research, the quality of the student experience, but also serving the state of Michigan and the nation,” he told Bridge Michigan Thursday.

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Bridge Michigan sat down with Ono, 59, to talk about how the university will play a role in lifting the student experience on campus and tackling Michigan’s and country’s challenges. 

The interview with Bridge education reporter Isabel Lohman has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

So obviously COVID-19 has certainly affected students, faculty, staff. What, if any, challenges do you see the university still having and needing to move forward from after the pandemic?

Well, we're very fortunate that the university has an expert panel that is assessing the situation regularly, I get regular reports regarding that. Fortunately, the situation is very good right now. There are very few cases, things are very safe. But for me, it's really, really helpful to know that it's being monitored on a regular basis.

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[Former U-M President] Mary Sue Coleman, while she was here, set this agenda of making sure that the university was having effects beyond the campus, making sure they were invested in business opportunities. So for example, she co-founded Ann Arbor Spark, which is that group that helps attract economic development in the region. What are your plans to ensure that the University of Michigan is a state leader when it comes to economic development outside of the campus?

Well, this is still early days, you know, I've been here for I think, 11 or 12 days. But the government relations team has been fantastic and making sure I get in front of leaders, for example, the governor and lieutenant governor. I was just in Washington, D.C., we have a fantastic Washington, D.C. office. 

For Michigan to build upon what Mary Sue has done, we really have to be at the table in those sorts of conversations.  

So, you know, we will make sure that we are in the conversation, in terms of major legislation, like [Chips and Science Act], for example, I was just at the American Association of Universities meeting where we discussed that and what's in the upcoming landscape of funding, and much of the funding will come from the federal government.

So I can tell you, there's great enthusiasm and respect for the University of Michigan, that we play an important role in actually crafting some of those policies that are adopted by the federal government in the current administration. And we'll continue to do that.

What did you and the governor talk about? Is there anything that you can speak on when it comes to how University of Michigan is going to accelerate the amount of people getting degrees in Michigan?

Well, I mean, that's a multifaceted question. Part of what's useful in talking to the governor and to other individuals in state government is that they have a lot of information about the workforce needs locally. And so that's very, very important. 

But it's also important for us to have conversations at the federal government level because Michigan is not just a state university because of the size of the institution. We are a major producer of graduates that are important for the competitiveness of the region and the nation. 

Santa Ono
Santa Ono told Bridge he is intently focused on listening to what students, staff, faculty, deans, community members and state leaders think about the institution. (Bridge photo by Erin Kirkland)

So I spoke to her about how we can help. I offered to be of help, I talked a little bit about how I was actively involved in the state of Ohio, with the then-governor, John Kasich, and how he called upon me to serve on a number of task forces. For example, in the space of biopharmaceutical sciences. He charged me to be the head of that task force. But I was also on the board of something called Ohio Third Frontier, which was really focused on focused investment on emerging companies that were spun off from the public universities in that state. 

And I offered to be of any help that she felt would be helpful for the vitality and competitiveness and strength of the economy here in the state of Michigan.

What do you hope the University of Michigan can focus on in these next, say, 90 days when we're thinking both after the election, and as you get settled into your role?

The first 90 days is a very short period of time in the tenure of a president. And certainly, as you know, I've been focused on conversations with governmental leaders and supporters. But it's very important for me to also interface with internal stakeholders. 

There are ongoing initiatives that I want to make sure are completed at the University of Michigan, there are new things that we're going to need to launch. And so just yesterday, I met with a group called the academic program group or APG. That's populated by all the deans of, in this case, the Ann Arbor campus, but I'll be visiting Flint and Dearborn as well. And having similar conversations involving the chancellors of those two campuses, but also includes members of the provost office, the chief academic officer and vice provost. 

So those conversations will inform the agenda beyond the first 90 days. 

You mentioned the student experience. What has been your impression of the student experience in these first two weeks? And what do you hope it looks like in the future? 

The student experience here, I can tell you, I've spent a good bit of time, as you probably know, from my tweets, and my Instagram posts, interacting directly with students. I've had the pleasure and joy of interacting with several hundred students in that short period of time. The students are incredibly bright, passionate, dedicated. I think they're pretty happy. 

I’ve talked not only from my experience, but also talking to deans and faculty members and chancellors of both campuses: there's an energy and vibe to the campuses, which is very different from the past three years. 

It was very tough during COVID to be a student, or a faculty member or staff member or just a member of society during COVID. But there's a lot of energy on campus, and people are just enjoying being face to face. And so it's been just beyond my expectation.

But the [Executive Officer] group and the regents are committed to making investments and thinking about programs to enhance the student experience even further.

One aspect of that has to do with student housing. We are actually talking about how to augment existing student housing because that's a very important part of a student feeling that they belong, and they're part of the community. And also, the quality of the student halls of residence has a direct impact on the quality of the student experience. 

One of the things that was brought up at the Board of Trustees meeting last week in Flint was at the public forum, there were several people who spoke and there seemed to be a palpable sense of concern or unease. And one of the concerns is that by going through this reevaluation process at U-M Flint, there's a possibility the campus will no longer offer social sciences or humanities to the level that it currently does. With the concern being that maybe the university will focus more on STEM. Do you see there being any nonnegotiables when you think about the future of U-M Flint and what U-M Flint will offer?

They're still gathering information. So I understand the concerns that have been articulated, but I encourage everyone to give the chancellor the time to work through the process. Mary Sue Coleman and the Chancellor actually had a town hall meeting and the chair of the Board of Regents Paul Brown was there. And so I think that's really the right way to go about having the conversation, going through a process. And so I would just encourage everybody to give them a little bit of time to work through that process.

You announced the creation of the new ethics, integrity and compliance office… What do you see this office doing when it comes to the healing process related to the Robert Anderson and Martin Philbert [sexual misconduct] scandals?

So as you probably know, that was a specific recommendation of Guidepost [Guidepost Solutions, a regulatory consulting firm hired by the university] who came through. And also it's something that I heard from in the three months following my announcement. I've had hundreds of conversations. For example, with many of the deans and faculty members and executive officers of the institution, with student leadership as well, and members of the senate. And so it was really clear to me that that recommendation was very important to many people. 

It's still early days, there's a commitment to do that. But I also said in my announcement at the regents meeting, that I would also be listening and speaking with members of the community to make sure that what we do is impactful. 

And so I will be communicating, hopefully, pretty regularly to bring everybody up to speed to where we are in that process. But also very thoughtful in terms of how we stand up that office so that we actually fulfill the reason why that was a recommendation from members of the community and from Guidepost. So we’re really going to do a lot of talking and make sure that what we stand up is meaningful and will be part of rebuilding the trust with the community.

In what ways do you hope that this office ensures not only rebuilding that trust, but ensures more accountability and protection for students?

People ask me, “what does ‘independent’ mean?”

And many universities already have this sort of office, as you know, from looking at many comments that have been made and reading the report. And so we're not reinventing the wheel. There already are best practices that exist in other institutions. And we want to take advantage of that best practice in setting up our own office. 

The independent part, also, there are already examples within this university and many others, you probably know there are ombudspersons or ombuds offices in hundreds of universities. They are independent by their very constitution, which means that they're inside the infrastructure of the institution — but they're not beholden to the president. They have the latitude to look at a situation and ombudsperson offices receive many kinds of tips and concerns that they evaluate. And they have the independence to do that at the highest level of integrity. 

But they're not something that is an oasis that has no connection or doesn't receive funding from the university. We intend to fund this office robustly and to guard against say, for example, myself or another office, controlling the office with respect to budget. Budgetary decisions will go all the way up to the regents and they will approve the budget of the institution. So it will be independent of me in terms of how the office is funded. 

A moment ago, you mentioned, of course, your Instagram and your Twitter. You're pretty active on social media. What do you hope or what do you see social media doing that you can't otherwise do in say, a press conference or an in-person student event?

Social media is incredibly powerful. I was one of the very first university presidents to embrace it many years ago in the early days of Twitter and Instagram. They have different audiences. Twitter audiences vary from institution (to) institution. There are some universities where there are very few people at the institution that are following Twitter. But there are others where it's a very, very robust platform.

I found that at the University of Michigan, it's actually a pretty robust platform. I get a lot of interaction with people through Twitter. They tend to be an older demographic than the Instagram crowd. And so what I actually share on those two platforms is tailored towards the demographic. The Instagram crowd tends to be many internal folks. They tend to be younger, they tell me what they want to see. So they provide me with content. A lot of it has to do with what's happening on campus, what kind of Halloween parties are there? What are clubs doing? And so I try to share or re-gram those things, and they are appreciative of that. 

It's also a place, since a lot of it's a younger crowd, where I tend to share a lot of pictures between myself interacting with them. And so that's, you know, that's how I use Instagram. 

Twitter right now has a lot more followers. If you actually look at demographics, it's much more global. It's much more multigenerational. There are also institutions that follow me. There are newspapers that follow me. So a different kind of audience. 

And for me, to answer your question, why is it useful for me beyond a press conference or an interview, it's a way for me to communicate real time with many people. It's not just the people that follow, the 26,000 or 40,000, whatever in different media, because I also communicate through Facebook and LinkedIn. In aggregate, it's actually a large number of people. it's not quite the size of the Big House. But if you actually look at retweeting and re-gramming, it actually exceeds the size of that. And so that's a lot of people you can communicate with, you know, relatively spontaneously in a fun way. 

But the other reason that I do it, and so for me, it was very helpful in the three months post announcement and my arrival because it gave me a way to connect immediately with individuals, even though I was in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

I've heard from a lot of people that they really value that virtual interaction prior to my arrival because they got a sense of what kind of person I am and what I'm passionate about. And I also was able to show individuals who are following me that I care about and want to know about not only Michigan, but also Ann Arbor. And so that was very, very helpful to connect even before I arrived. But I think even being on the ground, I can't be at 10 different places. It's a way that I can communicate with a lot of people, not restricted by where I physically am.

In July, you mentioned this need for the University of Michigan and other universities to take a serious action when it comes to climate change. Do you have any immediate ideas on how to do that?

You will hear from me in a couple of weeks. There's a leadership breakfast. We'll be sharing information about it. I don't want to get ahead of that. But there's a lot in there about early commitments that we will be making and I will be making. And I ask you to stay tuned to that. And tune in. There'll be a lot of news in that address.

Michigan, of course, is home of the Great Lakes. Michigan has a lot of natural resources. Do you have any suggestions or ideas for how state leaders can tackle climate change when there's all these other pressing issues as well, such as inflation or COVID learning loss? 

Well, obviously, the existential challenge of climate change in many ways transcends all of that. Because if we don't solve it, there won't be any planet for us to have to deal with those other problems. So I think there's a growing realization of that. 

I was just in Washington, D.C. And so with respect to the Great Lakes, there's an opportunity not only for collaboration between the universities and governments in the states that surround those lakes, but it's also an international activity that also involves Canadian provinces. 

So I think I have a unique opportunity, because of my recent involvement in Canadian government, but also universities as the leader of the U15 Group (of Canadian Research) Universities, to really build those bridges and connections and collaboration that's really going to be required to solve those issues around the Great Lakes but also in the hemisphere of North America. So one of the things that you'll hear in my leadership breakfast is how I intend to use that experience, those connections to really position Michigan to be a global leader in climate action.

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What would you see as the biggest challenge facing higher education as a whole right now? Doesn't have to be Michigan, doesn't have to be this country. What's the biggest challenge facing higher ed?

There are many challenges. But you know, I think that one of the things that I hear from students as well as from that academic program group, is really thinking about what a university is going to be in the future, right?

The pandemic was terrible. But it forced higher education to think about a sort of hybrid learning model and students and faculty and deans and the provost really want to take this opportunity to think about the positive side of that. The fact that institutions had to invest heavily in things like lecture capture [video recording] in halls, to speak with students and with faculty, to think about how you can leverage those capabilities to really enhance the learning experience for not only people that are currently at the institution, but students that will come to the institution into the future.

And I'm energized by the fact that the provost and the deans and the students want to have that conversation. And you have to have that conversation. It shouldn't be me saying ‘this is what Michigan is going to look like next year or in five years from now.’ It really should capture the dreams and aspirations of the entire community.

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