Santa Ono named first Asian American president of University of Cincinnati

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photo by University of Cincinnati/Ashley Kempher
Santa Ono. photo by University of Cincinnati/Ashley Kempher

Santa Ono, the University of Cincinnati’s first Asian American president, formally assumed his position April 19 after serving as interim president since August of last year. Ono is among the few Asian American college presidents in the U.S.

Priorities in Running a Major Research University
Ono has taken the helm of a prestigious university. The school’s Website reports that 34 of the school’s 308 programs rank among the top 50 in the nation. Nearly 42,000 students attend the public research university.

Ono said his top priority is in maintaining affordable education. He took steps to reduce expenses for the university and asked the school to freeze tuitions for students. According to Ono, about 80 percent of the university’s students are eligible for Pell Grants. “I think it is the responsibility of the university administration to contain the costs and control expenses so that we can minimize the need to increase tuition,” he said.

For Ono, his cost cutting can also be partly traced back to his parents struggling to get by when he was young. “I guess part of it was, my parents came to this country and they hardly had any money in their savings account. They came here with all their belongings in one suitcase,” he said. “I know what it’s like to struggle to pay for bills.”

“A close second,” according to Ono, is to maintaining their academic health center, which he said was ranked among the top 20 in the nation. His third priority is maintaining his school’s status as a Division 1 athletic school.

An Educated Family
Ono comes from a highly educated family. Ono’s parents, Takashi and Sachiko, came from Japan in the late 1950s with their oldest son, Momoro. The Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. hired his father, a mathematician.

Ono is the middle of three brothers born in three different countries. His older brother Momoro was born in Japan before his parents emigrated. He is a pianist and professor. His younger brother, Ken, a professor of mathematics, was born in the U.S.

Santa Ono was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on Nov. 23, 1962 after his father took a teaching position there while waiting for re-entry to the United States with a green card.

“My father had two loves as a young man. He loved the piano and mathematics,” he said. While the elder Ono was torn over his career, Santa Ono said his brothers have pursued the two passions his father had while he delved into his own passion for microbiology.

“I was nowhere near as talented as either of them in the two areas my father was interested in,” said Ono. “My father vicariously lived through my older brother … and my younger brother followed him in his footsteps, but I went and found my own thing.”

When Ono was a high school student in Baltimore, Md., the structure of DNA had just been solved; two Nobel laureates who helped to make these discoveries were at Johns Hopkins University at the time and a young Ono had the opportunity to listen to their lectures.

“I had a high school teacher who knew that I loved biology research. He brought me to listen to lectures at Johns Hopkins University … So I guess I was smitten by that very exciting field as a high school student and went on to study biology,” he said.

Ono went on to get his bachelor’s in biological sciences from The University of Chicago and a doctorate in experimental medicine from McGill University in Montreal.

Ono’s research was centered on immunology, specifically the genes that pass on susceptibility of diabetes and now centered on inflammation-related diseases of the eye. He has taught at Johns Hopkins and Harvard among several other medical schools.

Ono is married to Wendy Yip, a Chinese Canadian lawyer. They have two daughters, Sarah Yip-Ono and Juliana Yip-Ono. Ono said his family often goes to the symphony together, and he enjoys spending time with them while working around the house.

“Usually, I am driving my kids to music lessons and soccer practice,” he said, though his first year as a university president has made it hectic.

“I’ve only been president of UC for a year, so this has been a transitional year. I think the office has acclimatized and come to realize that they have to adjust to me … and I have acclimatized to what is expected of me as president,” he said. He said one of his challenges in the transition was to say “no” more, so as to not overextend himself and his staff.

Climbing to Presidency
While he focused on research, Ono said he had a series of mentors that helped him advance his career from researcher to administrator. Most recently, Ono served as provost to the university and prior to that he was a vice provost at Emory University in Atlanta. While Asians represent a large number of educators and students in colleges, only one percent of college presidents in the U.S. are Asian, Ono said.

“I’m told I’m the first Asian college president in Ohio,” he said. “I know that whenever you are the first to do anything, people are watching. So I feel a responsibility to perform at a high level, because in some ways, I am a representative for Asian Americans, especially in this region.”

Ono said there were few Asian American leaders due to a number of reasons, including a lack of a “pipeline” for them to enter leadership roles, as well as their chosen professions.

“It’s still quite the exception, not only for university presidents but among large corporations, to have an Asian American leader. Part of it is the pipeline, but part of it is where they (Asian Americans) major in and what they focus on in terms of prospective careers,” he said. Ono said many Asian Americans focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics fields in colleges over business and law school, where executive administrators tend to originate from. “It’s very rare that a medical doctor would be interested or be considered for a college presidency.”

Adding to the lack of precedence with role models and mentors, Ono said Asian Americans also face cultural barriers when leadership roles call for people who are extroverted and willing to take risks. “I also think there is some aspect of temperament and disposition among Asian Americans, especially Japanese and Japanese Americans. There is that sentiment that you don’t want to stick out, you want to blend in.”

Ono said he was privileged to have people who supported him throughout his career. He said he never felt discriminated against, especially as a professor of a STEM discipline, and had advanced feeling no prejudice or disadvantage because he is Asian American.

He acknowledged, however, that other Asian Americans in academia have felt differently.

“I think I was very fortunate to be in several institutions where I had mentors and role models who took me under their wings and showed me the ropes to be an administrator of a large university,” he said. “I was actually identified and recruited to UC by my predecessor, Gregory Williams, who was very committed to diversity, and he was also a mentor to me as well.”

Ono said he felt pride in being Nikkei as he took office. Ono said many Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the concentration camps relocated to Cincinnati after the war. “I was able to speak with several survivors and how they lost all their belongings,” he said about an event at which he was invited to speak at. “Some of them ended up going to UC and it was very emotional for me and for them. One of the things they said to me was, … ‘it’s only short of a miracle that only 70 years later, a Japanese American would be president of that very school.’”

Social on the Internet
Ono is also known for his adept use of social media. The college president has 17,000 Twitter followers and 5,000 friends on Facebook. This is a stellar change from when he could barely send a text message on his phone while at Emory University.

“Before moving to Cincinnati’s provost position, I opened a Facebook page and was surprised that lots of people wanted to friend me,” he said. At UC, Greg Hand, the associate vice president of university relations gave him a list of things Ono should consider for social media, one of them Twitter. He learned how to tweet from his phone and iPad from Ben Hofstetter, a younger staff member in the provost office.

Tweeting under the name @PrezOno, Ono said he connects with the current and prospective students, as well as alumni.

“It’s a healthy two-way dialogue between myself and members of the community,” he said.

Ono uses the hashtag “#HottestCollegeInAmerica” on Twitter to describe the school. “That’s almost become like a brand of the university,” he said. “We’ve measured that about 21,000 people have used that tagline.”

He truly believes that his college is indeed the “hottest college in America.” Ono called on future prospective Asian American students from across the United States, including California. “I think it’s one of the finest education and total experiences you can obtain at an American university.”

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