Homecoming for Santa Ono, new University of British Columbia president


Santa Ono ends his six-year tenure this month at the University of Cincinnati — two years as senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, four years as president — to become the University of British Columbia’s 15th university president and vice-chancellor. He was the first Asian American university president to lead the University of Cincinnati and is now the only Japanese Canadian president of a public research university in Canada, according to the University of British Columbia.

Ono’s new post is a homecoming of sorts. He was born in Vancouver, Canada while his father taught mathematics at the very university he now heads. Ono said he moved to the United States as a toddler when his father went on to teach at Princeton and Johns Hopkins University.

Now considered the second best university in Canada next to the University of Toronto, Ono told the Nichi Bei Weekly he is “overjoyed’ to serve as the University of British Columbia’s 15th president and vice-chancellor.

Ono studied experimental medicine at McGill University in Montreal and recalls visiting UBC in the late ‘80s. “I thought it was beautiful and that was in the late-‘80s. That was just … when Vancouver was starting its remarkable ascent as a city.”

Later in his career, Ono lectured at the University of British Columbia and was offered a faculty position there 11 years ago, though he decided  instead to take the job of senior vice provost at Emory University in Atlanta.

Ono said his new job, however, came through a chance meeting in Chicago last November, where he had given a talk on marketing schools through social media. A member of the University of British Columbia’s communication team joked to him that the presidency for their school was open after the previous president, Arvind Gupta, resigned. “And that’s how it all happened. I wasn’t contacted by a headhunter. I was surprised that … right after my talk, somebody stood up and mentioned the opening for presidency of UBC,” he said.

Ono said he mulled over the possibility of leading the university, and formally requested that the institution consider him as a candidate a few weeks later.

While Ono leaves short of the 10-year term he was hired for, he accomplished much during his four years as president of the University of Cincinnati. Ono said approximately $380 million has been spent on new construction and improvements to the campus, along with developments built around the university proper through public-private partnerships. He said the university is in the process of acquiring 44 acres of land north east of the campus for a new research park.

Ono said the university’s improved standings also serves to attract a capable future leader for the school. “The University of Cincinnati has been on a remarkable ascent,” he said.

When Ono took office in 2012, it enrolled nearly 42,000 students, according to a previous Nichi Bei Weekly article. Today, more than 44,000 students are enrolled at the university.

The university has not only seen record enrollment four years running, Ono said the quality of students has also increased. “We’re now one of the top 20 or 30 colleges or universities in the United States in terms of the number of National Merit scholars that matriculate at the institution, so the quality of the students has increased enormously and the number of applications and the diversity of applications being received is dramatically different from six years ago,” he said. Alongside the increase in enrollment, the university has also hired 100 to 200 new faculty members each year, hiring 212 new faculty members last year, Ono said.

“So there’s been a transformation of the faculty at the university, there’s a lot of new blood in the system and you can really feel the energy of the new faculty in many of the colleges,” he said.

His university, however, has attracted another kind of notoriety since last year when University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Samuel DuBose during an off-campus traffic stop. An independent report on the shooting by Kroll Inc. — which the university released — concluded that the shooting “never should have occurred. This incident, which resulted in a tragic loss of life, was entirely preventable.”

He called the shooting a “tragedy” that thrust the university into the international spotlight and said the school continues to deal with its aftermath a year later. The shooting triggered a review of the police department, culminating in the resignation of the university police department’s chief last February. Tensing’s murder trial has been postponed until Oct. 24.

“It’s something that nothing can prepare you for as a leader,” Ono said. “I think I’ve grown significantly by having to navigate that situation. I’m very, very grateful that we were able to do so and bring some modicum of peace back into the community following that tragedy.”

While Ono’s departure from Cincinnati is abrupt, he said the university is in good hands. “One of the things I think is a responsibility as any president, whether it’s a university or corporation, is to build a team and essentially make it so strong that you become indispensable,” he said. He believes he created that group of people through rebuilding his executive team since taking office. “I think the quality of the leadership team … and the university is so strong, it will be easy for the university to identify an outstanding new president for the future, so it’s in very good hands now.”

Ono is getting ready to move back to Canada. He will assume his new office mid-July, according to the university. However, he has already changed his Twitter account from @PrezOno to @ubcprez.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *