Santa Ono, officially named the new president of the University of British Columbia on Monday, says his experience taking over the helm of the University of Cincinnati will help him lead an institution that has had a rocky year since the resignation of its last leader.
“There are challenges everywhere.” he said. “When I was first elevated as interim president and president at the University of Cincinnati, that was right after the sudden departure of my predecessor, so it’s something that I have experience with and something that I can help move [UBC] beyond.”
Dr. Ono will begin his new post on Aug. 15.
The appointment brings to an end a saga that began late last summer, when former president Arvind Gupta resigned one year into his four-year term. Former president Martha Piper stepped in as interim leader.
Dr. Ono said he would like to speak with Dr. Gupta, adding he would leave the agenda for any such discussion to his predecessor, noting he “obviously” has a lot of knowledge about the university. “It would be my pleasure to talk to him.”
In his opening remarks, he said he is keen to build bridges with faculty and students at the school.
“One of the things I shall never forget is that I am a professor,” Dr. Ono said. “My philosophy is to lead from within the faculty. … I promise to be collegial and respectful and have utmost respect for faculty members broadly construed.”
A well-respected medical researcher and professor, and a leader popular with students and staff, Dr. Ono is also a national education figure who has spoken out about his own challenges, including suicide attempts as a young man.
Dr. Ono grew up in an academic family. His father is the mathematician Takashi Ono, who worked at UBC for a brief period in the 1960s, and his brother, Ken Ono, is a math professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Born in Vancouver, Dr. Ono spent most of his life in the United States but earned a PhD in experimental medicine at McGill University. In Montreal, he met his wife, Wendy Yip, a lawyer and homemaker. They have two daughters, 11 and 18.
“It’s quite an extraordinary life so far and has set the stage for accomplishments to come,” said Stuart Belkin, chair of the university’s board of governors.
The appointment is also a major career step. UBC is ranked at No. 34 in the Times Higher Education Rankings. Cincinnati comes between 301 and 350 on the same table and is at No. 140 on the U.S. News and World Report.
Accepting the UBC job comes with a pay cut of more than $50,000. Dr. Ono’s contract includes a $470,000 annual salary compared with the $525,000 (U.S.) he made in Cincinnati. For several years, Dr. Ono has donated his annual bonus payment of approximately $200,000 to scholarships and other aid.
Asked about his UBC salary, Dr. Ono paused. “I actually don’t know,” he said following a moment of befuddled reflection. “Money does not drive me.”
Although he has spent the vast majority of his life in the United States, Dr. Ono maintains strong sentimental ties to Vancouver and to UBC. He has asked faculty in the math department to see if they can find out where his father’s office was located.
And five years ago, he said his “very nostalgic” parents came back to find the apartment they all lived in. “I can’t wait for them to come back so I can show it to them again,” he said.
Over the past four years as president in Cincinnati, he has gathered thousands of student fans, many of whom say he responded to them individually in person and on Twitter or Facebook.
“He is the most open president our school has ever had. If students … ever had a problem, [Dr. Ono] would personally reach out and have it resolved, even if it was simply pointing someone in the right direction,” said Chelsea Eirmann, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati.
In May, Dr. Ono revealed his own struggles with mental health as a young man. “There should be no stigma for those with mental illness. I tried to take my own life 2X. We need to support each other,” he tweeted after a memorial event for a student who had killed himself.
That accessibility will help the new president talk to students at UBC about several sensitive areas. The university will be launching a mental-health initiative this fall, and it is in the midst of revising a draft of a sexual-assault policy that has come under criticism from student advocates.
The American experience with such regulations, which are governed by federal equality legislation, will be helpful, Dr. Ono said.
“This is not something which is unique to Canadian universities,” he said, citing Title IX policies in the United States. “We have certainly had these sorts of issues at the University of Cincinnati.”
Many at UBC learned of the appointment on Sunday night, when the news broke on social media.
“My son is an undergraduate at UBC and he walked into my bedroom and told me the new president was being named. He picked it up on Facebook,” said Wyeth Wasserman, executive director of the Child and Family Research Institute and an associate dean in UBC’s faculty of medicine.
Dr. Wasserman said Dr. Ono’s communication skills and his devotion to research make him an excellent choice. “His ability to provide a level of transparency that lets the community participate will be very good for UBC,” he said.
So far, Dr. Ono has also gained optimistic nods from some of the most vocal critics of how the administration handled Dr. Gupta’s resignation and the search for his replacement.
“He seems like a very generous person with a real perspective on the haves and have-nots of the world and redistribution of opportunity,” said Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business who resigned from the presidential search committee this spring because she felt the school’s board of governors was not respectful of faculty. “So let’s hope he brings that spirit here to UBC.”