New Big Ten presidents: One soars at Michigan, while another faces early trouble at Penn State

U-M names Santa Ono of the University of British Columbia as its next leader; Penn State's Bendapudi faces allegations from a former colleague at Louisville.

The Board of Regents at the University of Michigan on Wednesday unanimously approved Dr. Santa Ono as its 15th president, with officials lauding his leadership at the University of British Columbia, his academic acumen and his “enthusiasm” for athletics, something critical to the university.

But perhaps the most important trait the Board hopes he will bring to U-M and its Big House—aside from being a champion in so many critical areas to higher education including diversity and equity—is continued stability as he officially takes over for the disgraced Mark Schlissel. In the past few months, interim president Mary Sue Coleman has provided a calming stewardship in the wake of regents removing Schlissel from his position over an alleged “inappropriate relationship with an employee.” Now, it is Ono’s time to shepherd the institution positively into the next decade.

The 59-year-old Ono has spent much of his career as a well-respected scientific voice and administrator in higher education at UBC, Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Emory universities and as President of the University of Cincinnati from 2012-2016. Michigan regents believed so strongly in his credentials, his tireless pursuit of research initiatives and his ability to lift athletics into prominence at the Ohio institution that they all named him their No. 1 choice during their search process.

“Several clear and consistent themes emerged in regard to what our community wanted in a new leader: someone who could build trust, lead with integrity, who had strong emotional intelligence, and communication and listening skills,” said Denise Ilitch, a member of the Board of Regents and one of the leaders of the presidential search committee. “It is readily apparent to me after getting to know Dr. Ono and learning about his experience as a university administrator that he is the right person to lead the University of Michigan at this moment in time. He is relentlessly positive. He understands the critical role of collaborative relationships and working toward a common goal, and he loves the students he serves. His vision for our future is exciting, and we have a lot to look forward to. I’m telling you, it’s a happy damn day.”

In delivering his acceptance speech and acknowledging Coleman for her impeccable work in her two terms at Michigan, Ono offered a glimpse of his expectations and what will he bring to the institution.

“Michigan is a very special place. It feels very right to me,” Ono said. “It has a unique energy that conveys a sense of purpose to everyone, from a first-year student to the president of the institution. It is a pinnacle of public higher education. My job as president will be to make this great university even greater, even stronger, more engaged and more inclusive. I want to amplify Michigan’s impact on this great state, this great nation and the world. My job is not just to lead. My primary responsibility is to serve each and every one of you.”

The right choice for U-M

Ono brings impressive credentials. Beyond his work as an administrator, he has served as an advisor on many national and worldwide committees and is considered one of the global leaders in immunology research. He also has been at the forefront in the recognition of the importance of mental health, one of the top issues facing colleges and universities. He filled all of the wants of the next president in this critical time for U-M.

“Our community called for a leader who would continue to champion the university’s public mission through education and research, as well as its efforts on affordability and access, sustainability and carbon neutrality, sexual misconduct prevention, diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Regent Sarah Hubbard. “Dr. Ono has not only distinguished himself as a researcher and a university leader, he’s shown an impressive ability to meet the pressing challenges of the day head on, from sustainability and climate change to mental health advocacy.”

Jordan Acker, a member of the Board of Regents, outlined the reasons he was swayed in his decision to approve Ono as the next president. They came, he said, from four videos he watched of Ono that were both inspiring and overwhelming emotionally.

  • “The first two are TED talks he gave at UBC. His conversation about advancing women was an incredible and important speech.
  • The second, on his own mental health struggles and the struggles of a University of Cincinnati student, brought tears to my eyes. You can’t help but think while watching, this man cares so deeply about students.
  • The third is an interview with the CBC talking about the same subject—his modesty, his vulnerability, his clarity and his lack of ego in discussing some of the hardest moments of his life with a national radio audience. I was floored by that. In this day and age, when mental health at higher educational institutions is such an important issue for our students, there is no better person to lead than Santa Ono.
  • The fourth is one that I did not believe existed. Dr. Ono, during one of our interviews, told me that there was a video of him crowd surfing in the student section at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. I could not believe this was real. How can this talented academic, this man of faith, a man of deep accomplishments in the arts and sciences, expect me to believe that he was up there crowd surfing at a football game? Well, it’s real. I know you’ve seen Michigan Stadium. I’m hoping that soon when we beat Ohio State again, you’ll learn what it means to crowd surf in the largest stadium in America.”

The changing landscape

Ono is one of dozens of new presidents who have risen to posts in the past year as others have resigned, been forced out amid scandal, or retired. Top research institutions, including Big Ten schools, have not been immune. Northwestern is tragically looking for a new president after Rebecca Blank’s cancer diagnosis was revealed days ago. Purdue University’s Mitch Daniels is stepping down to make way for Mung Chiang. Penn State officially installed new president Neeli Bendapudi two months ago, but already she is facing scrutiny over allegations from a former University of Louisville colleague that she purposely lashed out against her.

Penn State’s independent student newspaper, the Daily Collegian and several other outlets including the Courier-Journal reported Wednesday that former assistant athletic director and lawyer Amy Shoemaker (now general counsel at Miami University) has filed a lawsuit against the university. She claims she told Bendapudi of an apparent extortion plot by a basketball coach concerning possible recruiting violations but was rebuffed and later reassigned to another role.

Bendapudi and the university did not address the allegations directly, but Bendapudi released a statement to The Collegian stating that “my commitment to ethical conduct and treating people the right way has been unwavering throughout my career.” In the article, Penn State’s Board backed her and new chief of staff Michael Smith, who was at Louisville at the time and was also named in Shoemaker’s suit.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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