Michigan gets what it needs in new president

·3 min read

By all accounts, Dr. Santa Ono is precisely what the University of Michigan wanted in its new president. But also, it likely has gotten exactly what it needs.

From the start, former president Dr. Mark Schlissel was a bad fit, espousing a brand of snobbery perfectly fit for the Ivy League — he came from Brown. But he was a terrible fit in Ann Arbor. As he was frequently decried as an elitist, he did nothing to disabuse the locals of this notion, starting with his comments that his focus was more on the academic side than athletics. That might sell well in Providence, but not in a city that boasts the largest football stadium in America. Naturally, the marriage ended in the only way it could — in disgrace.

However, with Ono, Michigan gets the best of all worlds. An affable, congenial face for the university, who will strive to push academics and research, while also taking athletics not just into account, but pushing for that side to be even greater. His comments upon his hiring on Wednesday reflect that.

“Playing at the highest level is incredibly important for public research universities,” Ono said. “The University of Michigan has a storied history and has a great set of teams right now across a wide group of different sports. It’s a point of great pride for the institution. It knits the whole community together. So, I think there’s a tremendous synergy in between academics and athletics, and I want to do everything I can to ensure that Michigan competes at the highest level.”

Compared that to what Schlissel said shortly after he began his tenure:

“What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does. Athletics isn’t part of the mission statement of the university. We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics,” he said.

“I also feel strongly that the students who come here to be athletes — are students and that they have all the opportunities for education and to take advantage of everything that goes on here at the university, as well as pursue the sport that they love.”

That’s nothing short of tone deaf when it comes to what the University of Michigan is. Yes, alums want athletes to succeed in the classroom and to help elevate the university’s good standing academically. But, athletics and academics are not diametrically opposed, especially considering that athletics are the veritable front door to the academic side for the vast majority of the populace at-large.

Schlissel never seemed to understand that, and thus was often at odds with the self-sustaining athletic department. Eventually, his snobbery took its told on the academic side, too.

Ono, on the other hand, has been well-regarded at his most recent stops. From the University of British Columbia to the University of Cincinnati, he’s cultivated a sterling reputation. At the latter, he did so while emphasizing the athletic side just as much as the academic side.

When Mary Sue Coleman stepped down, her successor did the university no favors. She stepped back in as interim president, and her next successor has an opportunity to right many of the wrongs levied by Schlissel. We’ll see how Ono steps up to the challenge.