The University of Michigan announced on Wednesday that its next president would be Santa J. Ono, a biomedical researcher known for his leadership on college affordability and action against climate change.
Dr. Ono, who currently serves as president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, was chosen following a monthslong search to find a permanent successor for Mark S. Schlissel, who was fired in January for what the university said was an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate.
In announcing Dr. Ono’s selection, the university said he would become the first Asian American leader of Michigan. Born in Vancouver to Japanese immigrant parents, he grew up in Pennsylvania and Maryland and also holds United States citizenship.
Michigan, one of the nation’s premier public universities, received a record 84,000 applications for this fall’s class. But Dr. Ono, 59, will take the helm during a contentious and difficult time on university campuses, split by culture wars as well as debates over college costs. Beyond the controversy over Dr. Schlissel’s firing, the university has also had to face the coronavirus pandemic, divisive cultural issues, the dismissal of a provost over sexual harassment accusations, and a sex abuse scandal involving a doctor, for which it agreed to pay $490 million.
In an interview, Dr. Ono said he intended to make it his mission to “work towards the public good” and provide an “uncommon education for the common person,” embracing the mantra of one of the university’s long-serving presidents.
Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses
Acknowledging that healing was necessary at the university following Dr. Schlissel’s unusual departure, Dr. Ono said he hoped to unify faculty, staff and students.
On the particularly contentious topic of abortion, Dr. Ono, who identifies as a devout Christian, said he did not disagree with earlier statements from the university, including one issued by the university’s medical school on June 24 saying that Michigan “remains committed to providing high-quality, safe reproductive care for patients, ” including “abortion care.”
A 1931 law in Michigan banning abortion has not been enforced and is currently part of a court fight.
Paul Brown, chair of the Michigan regents, called Dr. Ono someone who “encompasses two usually contradictory personality traits — he is open and empathetic and approachable yet at the same time analytical and entrepreneurial.” The Board of Regents voted unanimously to endorse Dr. Ono.
Known in scientific circles primarily for his work involving the immune system and diseases of the eye, Dr. Ono also has a more playful side. He has been known to dress up in a Santa Claus costume, a riff off his first name. He is also regarded as an ardent sports fan, an asset at a major Big Ten university.
On a more serious level, he has shared his personal struggles with mental health as a youth. Following the suicide of a student at the University of Cincinnati, where Dr. Ono also served as president, he urged students who were struggling with mental illness to seek counseling, discussing how he had tried to overdose on cold medication and beer when he was 14 and attempted suicide again in his twenties.
In addition to his leadership roles in British Columbia and Cincinnati, Dr. Ono previously served as deputy to the provost at Emory University. Educated at the University of Chicago and McGill University, Dr. Ono has also taught at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and University College London.
Since Dr. Schlissel’s departure in January, the university has been run by an interim president, Mary Sue Coleman, who had been Dr. Schlissel’s predecessor in the job until he took office in 2014.