Here comes Santa Ono

Santa Ono arrives at UBC bringing enormous expectations that he'll be able to reinvigorate an institution that's been through some hurtin' years. Can this new touchy-feely, social-media-savvy president really turn things around?

Santa Ono will be inaugurated later this month as UBC’s 15th president. Populist, gregarious, devout and vulnerable, he’s a university administrator the likes of which B.C. has never seen before. And he arrives not a moment too soon

At first glance, the new president of UBC is impossible to spot amid the throngs packed onto a plaza in front of the year-old, $107-million Student Union Building. But, looking closely at the way people have gathered on this pleasantly sunny day in mid-August, it soon becomes clear that Santa Ono—wearing his trademark bow tie, in UBC blue and gold, and regulation white shirt and dark pants—is the main attraction. The crowd of students, parents, faculty and staff who’ve come for a meet-and-greet look enraptured—their faces glowing, and camera phones raised, as if it’s a charismatic preacher or politician they’ve come to hear speak. 

And finally, Ono does speak—in his low, soothing voice—reaching out to one delighted listener after another and offering support for whatever they’re doing. “Tell me about you guys,” he says to one group of young science students. “Are you working in a laboratory yet? I’ll help you, I’ll connect you.” To the man from the campus Hillel organization: “I used to go to Hillel at Emory and Cincinnati regularly.” To a woman from the medical faculty asking about a new initiative: “I think there will be a big push for that this year. I’ll make sure I’m directly involved.” To a clutch of university IT employees: “So does it need a brand refresh or what? Who’s your head?” There are hugs, there are promises to play his cello with a music group—there is even a special reach-out to the animal-rights activists who have come to picket and hand out literature protesting the use of animals in experiments at UBC.

Onyinye Ofulue, a third-year chemical engineering student from Nigeria, is enthralled after speaking with him briefly. “I think he’s very humble and he makes the effort to interact with everyone,” says the ball-capped young woman, who has been following Ono on Twitter ever since his presidency was announced in mid-June.

Ono is a university president the likes of which B.C. hasn’t seen before. As provincial universities try to fight their way up national and international rankings, cope with ongoing financial crunches and push to expand their schools, they’ve tended to hire sombre academics with a flair for institutional organizing, fundraising and empire-building. They haven’t looked for people whose vivid, unusual and charismatic personalities are a force in themselves—strong enough to reshape the emotional perception of the institution. But this 53-year-old father of two (Juliana, an 18-year-old spending a gap year in Vancouver, and Sarah, an 11-year-old attending UBC’s public elementary school) is, by contrast, a devout Christian who believes fervently in the idea of being a servant leader; a scientist who believes equally fervently in the power of data to improve education and university organization; a top bureaucrat who has talked about his suicide attempts as a young man; and a seeming introvert who has become a social-media star in the academic world.

(Clockwise from left) UBC’s former presidents include David Strangway, Martha Piper, Arvind Gupta and Stephen Toope

He has arrived, with his particular set of skills, at a crucial time. UBC—a power hitter in the city and country that’s regularly ranked one of the top 20 public universities in the world—has struggled the last two years with a series of headline-generating crises. The board of governors chose a new university president two years ago, only to see that man, Arvind Gupta, abruptly resign after just one year—and after Gupta had gotten rid of several key managers around him. Amid the fog of explanations, Gupta’s departure appeared to be the result, in part, of conflict between him and the board. The resignation triggered a cascading series of mini-dramas. A professor who wrote a blog post speculating about the reason for his departure (he wasn’t masculine enough for UBC’s alpha males) generated more controversy. The chair of the board of governors resigned after an inquiry found that UBC had “failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom,” after the chair had called her to discuss the post. The faculty association voted several months later that it had no confidence in the board. Along with that, UBC has been criticized for its handling of sexual assaults on campus, by students and random intruders, and for the firing of its high-profile head of creative writing, Steven Galloway.

All of that has left the institution more than a little bruised—and ready for a different kind of leader. “I don’t think any observer would have expected UBC to pick a conventional candidate,” says David Mitchell, a former senior administrator at three Canadian universities, including SFU, and currently vice-president at Bow Valley College in Alberta. “It requires a leader who doesn’t fit into the conventional mould.”

Now it has one, uniquely suited to the time. “UBC definitely needs a healer, and he’s that,” says Lynn Newman, a former assistant dean at UBC now doing a doctoral dissertation on university management. “His personality is one that invites buy-in.”

Ono’s name wasn’t bandied about from the beginning of the search process, nor was it a headhunter who lured him in. Although he was attracting notice as the interesting young president of the University of Cincinnati—an institution that’s long been seen as a springboard to bigger university posts—Ono and the search committee didn’t intersect until after a chance meeting. Ono, a keynote speaker at the American Marketing Association’s symposium for the marketing of higher education last November in Chicago, was alerted to the new job when a UBC communications officer, Julie Ovenell, stood up and told him he was exactly the kind of person UBC was looking for. According to accounts that have rippled out from the interview process, there were three strong candidates by the end. But Ono stood out and was the unanimous choice. People familiar with the inner conversations at UBC say there’s a tremendous sense of relief that it’s someone like Ono who’s been chosen and that he starts with a lot of goodwill.

In spite of that, however, Ono also faces enormous challenges. Everyone who knows the post-secondary world knows that all universities are difficult fiefdoms to manage at the best of times—and UBC ranks among the most complex. It’s enormous, for one thing, with 60,000 students (on two campuses, spread 400 kilometres apart), 15,000 faculty and staff, and a $2.3-billion budget—twice the size of the City of Vancouver’s. Department heads are like medieval princes, with their own fundraising and, in some cases, research arms. UBC has its own property-development board and disgruntled residents’ association. There is a board of governors, two senates and associations of faculty, managers, staff and students who all have their say in whatever happens. “You have to do rounds of consultation for everything,” says Newman. “There’s a lot of egos.”

This next year will be the test. “The first year is just to calm the waters,” says Newman. Ono will need to pick a team to help him steer such a large ship, say several experienced university hands, and one of his biggest problems may be the unhealthy glow of his developing rock star status. “Where some university presidents have not succeeded is by raising expectations to unrealistic levels,” says Mitchell. “A university president is part figurehead, part diplomat, but cannot be the fixer extraordinaire.”

Ono has promised to lead the university on a visioning process to develop a new strategic plan. He says the board expects him to take UBC to a new place, and he is planning to do that. Ono’s decisions about his support team and his leadership will set a possibly transformative new course for UBC for years afterward. That’s the best-case scenario. The less appealing one is that he fails to get the UBC freighter to deviate much from its course, that he is unsuccessful at convincing the independent dukedoms to do anything different—or even that he crashes and burns, as so many new university presidents are doing these days.

The ghost of a stammer flickers when Santa Ono speaks. Just a repetition, very occasionally, of a syllable in his otherwise fluid and scholarly style: com-complex; psych-psychiatric. It’s a legacy of his first years at school, where he struggled to adapt as one of the only Asian children in his American elementary school and one whose parents spoke Japanese at home. “I had to work with a speech pathologist to learn how to make North American sounds with my mouth,” Ono explains in a lengthy interview earlier this summer. “Having difficulty speaking in English, I stuttered as a youth.” There are other faint reminders of a childhood that wasn’t easy. As the interview begins, in a standard-issue seventh-floor boardroom (his office is being reorganized), Ono sits at first with his hands pressed together between his legs.

Ono is the middle child of a brilliant Japanese mathematician, Takashi, and his wife, Sachiko, who ran the household like a general. The pair were “tiger parents,” in the words of Ono’s younger brother, Ken, now a renowned mathematician himself. Ken’s biography, My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count, published in April 2016, is laced with references to the parents’ demands that their children excel—and the impact it had on them. “If I wasn’t the best student, then I would bring shame on my family. It was understood that it was my duty to be ‘the best,'” wrote Ken. That pressure produced a state of constant anxiety, filling his head with reprimanding voices that reminded him at every moment that he was failing.

Performing with his brother, Ken

The oldest son, Momoro—born in Japan before his parents arrived in the U.S.—was designated the one to excel in music. While all the boys had lessons at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, Momoro went on to become a performing pianist, according to plan, and is now a music professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Ken, six years Santa’s junior, showed an early talent for math and knew he was expected to become an academic. “Santa, the middle son, had a different path,” wrote Ken. “He was often described as the black sheep of the family, which is ironic, because he is the one who will go on to be the most successful son. My parents felt that he was unlikely to amount to much of anything, so he was expected to be an ordinary company man, whatever that means.”

Takashi Ono had come to the United States in 1959 after another prominent mathematician, André Weil, invited him to do research at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. The couple arrived never intending to stay more than a few years, but they did—for three years in New Jersey, before a one-year stint in Vancouver for the 1962-63 academic year, after Takashi’s American green card had expired. Santa was born at St. Paul’s Hospital on November 23, 1962, the year they were in B.C., which has left him with dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship. The family moved back to the States when Takashi got a teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania. By 1969, the family landed in Baltimore, where Takashi would be a tenured professor at Johns Hopkins University until his retirement in 2011.

The suburbs of Baltimore in the 1960s and ’70s were not places where Japanese people got a warm welcome. Sachiko would get called a Jap and a Nip when she went grocery shopping. They were refused service at gas stations. One time, a local teenager shot out the windows of their house in the suburban community of Towson, then described as a sleepy burg with a small-town feel. At school, in second grade, Ken was dragged to a forested area and tied to a tree, while a gang of kids shoved the rotting carcass of a bird down his back.

The parents never fought back and never complained, not wanting to attract attention. Instead, they continued to push their boys to excel—and they exerted strong controls. Santa, even though his parents’ expectations of him were low, wasn’t allowed to go to his high-school prom; when he went anyway, his parents hunted him down and made him come home with them.

Those experiences left their mark on the emotional states of both Ken and Santa. In his book, Ken describes an incident in his 20s where he tried to drive into the path of an oncoming truck on a highway because he was so despondent about having performed badly at an academic conference. At the last minute, he swerved away. Santa, in a startling admission in a May speech to a couple of hundred people at a mental-health fundraiser, said he had attempted suicide twice—once when he was 14 (taking a combination of cold medications and beer), and once in his 20s. Unlike Ken, he doesn’t attribute his depressions and attempts (which didn’t require hospitalization but did prompt treatment) to any particular cause. In his gentle way, he deflects any blame: “I’m not saying my parents were the issue. I think it’s a case-by-case basis. It’s hard really to say that this is the root cause.”

Both boys went on, ultimately, to be extremely successful—although they took different paths. Ken rebelled for years, dropped out of high school, became a competitive bike-racer (something his parents considered a waste of time) and floundered at university before finding mentors and a path. (That path has taken some interesting turns. Ken became an associate producer of the recently released film The Man Who Knew Infinity, where he coached Dev Patel in the role of the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan—someone whom Ken had idolized his whole life.)

Santa was the steadier one—the tortoise to Ken’s erratic hare. Instead of becoming a company man, he went off to the University of Chicago to study biology and then to McGill University for a doctorate in experimental medicine. He became a sort of parent to his younger brother—at one point taking Ken in, in Montreal when he dropped out of high school, nurturing him, finding him work and giving him some balance. While at McGill, Ono also met Wendy Yip, a Montrealer studying immunology, whom he would marry in 1989. Yip is a powerhouse in her own right—the daughter of two accomplished Canadian academics, a patent lawyer and someone who has dedicated her volunteer time in recent years to schools, poverty programs and, in Cincinnati, the local zoo.

(Left to right) With his wife, Wendy Yip, on their wedding day; his daughters, Sarah and Juliana

Yip also introduced Ono to Christianity—something that has had a profound influence on his life and helped him overcome some of his lingering doubts about himself. “When you’re struggling with your own self-worth, that leads you to think about your core beliefs. My faith journey was a very personal one.” The minister at Yip’s Anglican church in Montreal took an interest in him. Ono went to Sunday school for weeks with 11-year-olds to learn about the Bible. “I was tremendously touched and moved by that experience and I was baptized on Easter Sunday.” He was 23.

That faith is what guides many of his actions now. Ono has been on a steady upward climb since Montreal, obtaining positions at Harvard and University College London. He almost came to UBC in 2005 as a professor in the medical faculty, but was attracted to Atlanta’s Emory University (where Ken is on the faculty) instead because it offered him the chance to move into administration work. From there, he moved in 2010 to the University of Cincinnati as a vice-president. When the president there abruptly resigned, the university didn’t even do a job search—making Ono interim president and then hiring him outright in 2012. He attracted attention in Cincinnati by, among other things, giving up any bonuses due to him (in 2015, some US$200,000) and putting the money into student scholarships. That is just one manifestation of his faith-grounded approach to life, says one of the priests at his former church, the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, in Cincinnati.

“I’m pretty impressed with what he did at our church, with all the other demands he had,” says Nancy Hopkins-Greene. “When he talked about his faith, he wove in often that Jesus had said, ‘The first will be last and the last will be first.'” Hopkins-Greene says Ono’s humbleness constantly shone through. Although he was most often a lay reader for the service, if the high-school student who was supposed to carry the cross didn’t show up, he would take on the role with much delight.

Ono’s move to administration, despite a strong track record as a research scientist, can also be explained by his faith. “I’m not attracted to being a boss. It’s an opportunity to serve,” says Ono, who has been on a dizzying array of academic, community and business boards and committees, from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra board to the executive committee of the NIH Training Program in Molecular Causes of Eye Diseases. “That’s really what makes me tick. If you have a position as a department chair or a dean or a provost or a president, you have an incredible privilege to make decisions, to make the dreams of those in that unit or in that institution come true. It’s about building things.”

That is the philosophy of servant leadership—an idea that has ancient origins but was rebooted in the 20th century by former AT&T executive Robert Greenleaf. Greenleaf founded a centre in 1964 and then wrote several books in the ’70s that all focused on creating a new culture of leadership quite different from the authoritarian and soulless ones he had experienced. “Our view is that you absolutely see servant leadership rooted in Christianity,” says the current CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, Patricia Falotico. “Jesus Christ is our role model, although in many modern religions, you see this concept of leading by serving.”

While the concept can cause confusion—bringing to mind a leader who seeks happiness by letting everybody do what they want—Falotico and Ono (who don’t know each other) say that’s far from the case. Falotico says servant leaders, rather than just trying to please everyone, push them to grow—by telling them what’s going wrong and, if necessary, by saying no. “A servant leader who’s committed to the growth of others has to give feedback.”

Ono is even more vehement about what servant leadership is and is not. “Servant leadership is in no way, shape or form in conflict with being a visionary or transformational leader,” he says during our interview, sitting upright in his chair. “I would argue that a servant leader can be a more transformational leader than one focused on his own career. Because the vision should not be about yourself; the vision should be about the institution.”

The new vision for UBC—which Ono promises he will develop in collaboration with everyone on campus—is something many will be waiting for. It’s been a decade since the last vision was developed under Stephen Toope and almost 30 years since UBC began to redefine itself as not just the hometown university for Vancouverites but a world-ranked institution. It started with David Strangway, who turned UBC into a place renowned for research during his tenure from 1985 to 1997. UBC’s upward climb continued with Martha Piper, president from 1997 to 2006, who became a nationally visible representative for UBC—someone renowned for her ability to connect with federal politicians and granting agencies. She spearheaded an effort to recruit students from the rest of Canada and emphasized the role of students as global citizens. Toope, in place from 2006 to 2014, took that further, expanding the number of international students at UBC, and building strong real estate and fundraising capabilities.

No one knows quite what to expect of Ono—in part because his time at the University of Cincinnati doesn’t offer completely clear indications of what he might do here. “His time there was a little too short a time to have done enough to judge him,” says Paul Fain, the Washington, D.C.-based news editor of Inside Higher Ed, a publication that chronicles university life in the U.S. The average tenure for a university president, and the usual time needed to assess their records, is six or seven years, says Fain; Ono was president for four. Inside Higher Ed named him, in a light-hearted end-of-year list, as its up-and-coming college president in 2015. But that was based more on anecdotes from insiders, along with Ono’s 73,000-Twitter-follower hipness factor.

Members of the University of Cincinnati cheer squad hoist Santa Ono at a Bearcats football game

Ono was clearly popular in Cincinnati, for a number of reasons. As a long-time professor and researcher, he appealed to academics who felt like he was one of them. Students loved him because he was so willing to connect, replying to their tweets that their rooms were too hot or that they didn’t know how to replace a ripped diploma. That’s key in a climate where post-secondary institutions are hustling to attract students and where those students view a good president as someone who is “responsive and engaged,” says Fain. Ono, a guy whose main hobby is tropical fish, became an enthusiastic cheerleader for the university’s football team, the Bearcats, to the point that many of their fans and players are still sending him mournful messages months after his departure.

As the first Asian-American president at the University of Cincinnati, Ono was also a visible symbol for minority students there. He was willing to talk about his own suicide attempts. “To show that vulnerability is very unusual. Most college presidents don’t go there. They’re risk averse,” says Fain. University enrolment grew by 2,000 while Ono was there, and he was increasingly seen as a player and voice in national discussions. Most importantly, he handled a potentially catastrophic event—where a campus policeman shot an unarmed black man in July 2015—with none of the ensuing riots or protests that have marked similar incidents in the States. “That shooting episode, that’s pretty much the worst nightmare,” says Fain. “That one resolved better than one might expect”—with a $5.3-million payout and many apologies—”and he was visible there in an appropriate way.”

While that gives informed observers a sense of his emotional intelligence and his ability to handle a crisis, what’s less clear is the direction in which he might take the university as an academic, research and business-generating institution.

Ono is at his most forceful when he talks about his view of universities and how presidents can shape them by working collaboratively with faculty and staff. In Cincinnati, he says he directed an asset-mapping project to assess which departments were key to helping “elevate” the university and which ones were, well, not doing that. “To do that at a university is very risky because the have-nots will get upset,” he admits. “But everybody wants a piece of the pie and, with a finite pie, if you give everyone the same amount of resources, like spreading peanut butter on bread, you won’t elevate the institution.” He says data and an open process helped him get buy-in so that resources could be reallocated strategically to key programs. He expects to be able to do the same here.

Ono is also a great believer in the university as a jumping-off point for research that generates business. In Cincinnati, he was an ardent supporter of the already-strong connections between the university and industry, which has resulted in very robust co-op programs there. And he doesn’t have much time for those who say universities shouldn’t be about job-training but only about educating critical thinkers. He says it’s myopic to think you can only educate students for one or the other, when, really, it’s possible to transform them into thoughtful global citizens while at the same time encouraging discoveries that have economic impact. He cites Michael Smith, the UBC researcher who won a Nobel Prize and whose work has been the foundation for a worldwide explosion in biotech companies. Ono would like to see more of that. “I’m hoping in my tenure as president we will connect with the business and corporate community, much more than has been the case, to have an active dialogue—not only with businesses but also provincial and national leaders, so that we can become even more effective in giving back to the province and the nation.”

Those are big ambitions and complex projects. Ono, who will be formally inaugurated as the 101-year-old university’s 15th president on November 22, the day before he turns 54, has a monumental task ahead of him. A casual observer might never guess that from Ono’s first couple of weeks, when he possibly outdid Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in some kind of selfie record and where he seemed amenable to participating in just about any goofy activity. In late August, when 1,500 students filled Thunderbird Stadium for a pre-class welcome show—complete with bhangra dancers, opera and hip-hop—Ono was right there in the stands, shooting video on his phone and applauding the showy numbers. And when the order came to dance, he rose and unselfconsciously dad-danced with everyone else.

Santa Ono chats with students, faculty, staff and others who have gathered at a mid-August event held at UBC to welcome the new president

The social capital that Ono is accumulating as he dances, selfies and hugs will stand him in good stead, say observers, as he pushes for change. He’s already started to build up a level of trust that was missing before. “One thing that is really clear about him already is that he really means it when he says faculty are important to the university,” says Mark Mac Lean, the president of the UBC Faculty Association, which has been sharply critical of UBC’s administration in recent years. People at the university may have unreasonable expectations about Ono, says Mac Lean—that “he will walk on water and make tuition increases go away”—but Mac Lean is feeling more optimistic than he has in a while. Just one small sign of the difference: Mac Lean now has open access to the president, able to send him a text or call on his cell any time. And it goes both ways. “I have gotten messages from him at 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. He’s a very strong communicator.”

That’s all part of the strategy for those who view themselves as both servants and leaders. And it doesn’t mean just listening and repackaging. Those who’ve spoken with Ono have seen how he listens but also sorts, sifting the important from the peripheral. He will now have to exercise that skill to the utmost—in a place where everyone has an opinion, a demand and a piece of turf to protect.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that the chair of the board of governors of UBC resigned after an inquiry found that he had breached a professor’s academic freedom. In fact, the inquiry found that no single individual bore responsibility, but that the institution as a whole failed in its responsibilities to support academic freedom. This has been corrected.