U of Michigan won’t give new president Santa Ono a faculty job if fired, breaking precedent

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Dive Brief:

  • Santa Ono, the incoming president of the University of Michigan, would lose his tenured faculty role if the institution fired him for cause, a departure from typical contracts with college chief executives.
  • This provision in Ono’s five-year contract likely stems from the aftermath of a scandal with his predecessor, Mark Schlissel, who was fired from the presidency in January. Schlissel’s contract permitted him to keep his tenured biology professorship after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with his employee. 
  • Ono’s university pact also includes a pay bump from Schlissel’s base salary — $975,000 a year compared to Schlissel’s annual $927,000.

Dive Insight:

University regents in January publicized Schlissel’s dismissal, releasing a horde of emails that they said documented him overstepping the institution’s policy against supervisor-employee relationships. 

In one email to a woman who was his subordinate, Schlissel included a flight itinerary to Europe. He suggested he and the employee miss a connecting flight “and get stuck in Paris.” Schlissel called the woman “sexier” in another email. 

He has defended the relationship as consensual and not physical, and also stressed he did not inappropriately spend university resources to maintain it. 

The university’s relationship policy was enacted after a sexual misconduct controversy concerning a former provost, Martin Philbert. An internal investigation in 2020 found he had harassed women for more than two decades. A separate review the next year found a late university doctor, Robert Anderson, had sexually assaulted students for nearly 40 years. 

The revelation that Schlissel — post-firing — would be able to hold onto his tenured faculty job in molecular, cellular and developmental biology raised eyebrows. 

The university noted at the time his contract entitled him to such a position.

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald declined Thursday to comment on Ono’s contract. 

Ono’s base salary of $975,000 a year is a significant boost from his pay as president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia, where in the 2020-21 academic year, he earned $449,400 in Canadian dollars. He will also get $350,000 in deferred compensation starting after his first year as president. 

If Ono completes the five-year contract, the university will provide him an 18-month sabbatical. That’s an unusually long period, James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, said in an email. Finkelstein has researched presidential contracts extensively.

By contrast, most faculty sabbaticals are for one academic term at full pay or one year at half pay, Finkelstein said.

Further, Ono will receive up to $1 million “in start-up costs” to establish a laboratory and research age-related macular degeneration, ocular cancer and inflammation, which is part of Ono’s area of scholarship. The university is giving an additional $250,000 each year of the contract to staff the lab. 

While it’s possible for presidents to conduct research during their tenures, their leadership responsibilities often take precedent. 

“We don’t see how a new president, even one who is experienced, can take on the job of president as well as run a scientific laboratory,” Finkelstein said.

Ono will be required to live in the presidential home once renovations are complete. The university will pick his interim abode.

He begins Oct. 13. Ono replaces Mary Sue Coleman, who has led the university since Schlissel’s firing and was U of Michigan president from 2002 to 2014.

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