Get to know UBC’s new president, Dr. Santa Ono

Dr. Ono shares his thoughts on the power of social media, UBC, and his love of bow ties

June 21, 2016

By Dominika Lirette / Photo: Paul Joseph

Dr. Santa Ono has been all over the news since it was announced on June 13 that he will be the 15th president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia. Dr.Ono, who has a PhD in experimental medicine from McGill University, is joining UBC on August 15, after having served as president of the University of Cincinnati since 2012. And he’s wasted no time connecting with the UBC community on social media. Students and faculty have been tweeting Dr. Ono and photographing themselves wearing his signature look, the bow tie. In return, Dr. Ono has been responding to tweeters within minutes and launching contests to host dinner at the UBC presidential residence, Mackenzie House, for students. We caught up with Dr. Ono to learn a bit more about the man with the bow tie that everyone is talking about.

You’re very active on Twitter and have accumulated quite the social media following. Are you trying to use it as a way of directly connecting with students?

This is the way I have been for about six years. I have a new Twitter handle and Instagram handle, because I didn’t want to move everybody from Cincinnati to Vancouver. That one had about 73,000 Twitter followers and Instagram, the one in Cincinnati, has something like 13,000, and some of them are migrating over. So, I’ve started new handles for not only students but UBC faculty and staff.

In the United States, it’s remarkable. Of those 70,000 followers some of them are high school students, some of them are even as young as middle school students, some of them are fellow presidents at other institutions, some are foundations and other universities. So, it’s not only for students, and in fact if you look at the individuals that are following me at my handle now, @ubcprez, you’ll see that they’re faculty members. There are entire departments that are already communicating with me through it. So, it’s not just for students. All kinds of people communicate with me through social media, and it’s incredibly effective.

In the six years that I’ve used it in the United States at the University of Cincinnati, it’s really had a clearly demonstrable impact on the number of applications, which has gone up quite significantly, the number of new donors to the university, and I’ve even gotten outright gifts from people because of interactions on Twitter.

Why do you think that is? Is it the directness that Twitter provides?

Well, yes. If you think about it, the typical president has very little ability to interact with whatever the number of students, whether it’s 15, 20, 30, 40, or UBC’s 60,000 students. If you rely only upon one-on-one interactions it would never happen. This is a way that you can communicate simultaneously in real-time with tens of thousands of people, and you can also hear from them, what they’re excited about, what they have concerns about. So it’s really a dialogue. It’s not a broadcast.

Do you handle your Twitter account or does somebody else?

Well, most of the tweets at Cincinnati have been mine, and I plan for that to be the case when I’m in Vancouver as well. Sometimes I’ll have somebody if I’m on the road or in the airplane and I can’t respond to something. Sometimes I’ll have somebody in the staff respond for me so that they can be relatively prompt. So, every now and then somebody else will manage it for me, but the thing that’s pretty unique about me, unlike most presidents that are on Twitter, is that I handle most of the communications myself and people can tell that it’s the authentic me.

Everyone seems to be going crazy about your bowties. Is this a new thing or has this always been your signature look?

Oh, I’ve actually been wearing only bowties for five years. I don’t even remember how to tie a regular tie. I’m actually shocked at how much there are departments sending pictures of everybody in bowties now. But, that’s me.

You had Twitter contests where the first eight students who tweeted you a photo wearing bow ties were invited to dinner at the president’s house, as well as the first 10 to tweet you photos wearing UBC gear. Is this something you are planning to do regularly to engage students and create more transparency around the roll of the president?

Well, I’ll say that I’ve been doing this for years and it does bring you closer to the students. I’m not going to do this only for students. Bowties, unfortunately, although we had some people that submitted photographs that were women, it’s mainly guys that wear bowties. So, that’s why immediately after that we also wanted to have one which both genders could participate. That’s when we said send us pictures of your spirit wear and I’m very conscious about balance.… What I try to do is spread it around. And then over a span of a year, we really pay attention to diversity, not only in terms of gender, but we also look at trying to make the president’s house, Mackenzie House, open not only to students but also to faculty and staff and alumni. People have fun with it. I’m actually blown away with how receptive the community has been to the bow tie thing. I’ve never seen that before.

In Cincinnati your annual salary was $525,000 American, and at UBC you’ll be taking a pay cut with a salary of $470,000 Canadian a year. If it wasn’t for a financial raise, what inspired your decision to come to UBC?

Life isn’t only about money and lets face it, that salary that UBC is paying is a healthy salary. I’m not exactly going to be hurting in terms of compensation. After a certain point it’s not all about money and what really attracted me was the fact that it’s a fantastic institution in every sense of the word. It’s one of the world’s great universities, and I don’t know if people really realize that in Vancouver how good an institution UBC is. So, I’m excited about that and it’s a young institution that really has an incredible ethos to it. The people that I’ve met are very forward-looking, they think outside of the box. It’s a great, innovative place, and that’s what attracted me. The other thing is that I was born in Vancouver when my father was on the UBC faculty. So it was really a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to come back home. And the other attraction is that Vancouver is arguably the most beautiful city in North America. There’s a lot going for it. Great school, great city, an opportunity to come back home.

What are some of your goals for the next five years at UBC?

We are an outstanding, excellent institution. I believe that we have all the potential to become really one of the world’s greatest universities. Currently, most people rank us among the top 20 public universities. I don’t see why we can’t move into the top 10 public universities in the world. All it takes is strategy, vision, focus, and the ability to identify new revenue streams that might not be apparent right now, and that’s what we were able to do in Cincinnati. We were able to elevate the university considerably in the six years that I was there.… My job is to optimize revenues coming into the university so that the students can be supported and taught by the best faculty anywhere around the world. So that’s why my focus isn’t money, my focus is to get money so that I can serve the community.

You’ve been very open about mental health awareness. At UBC, they have a Mental Health Awareness Club. Do you have any plans to reach out to them or do you have any initiatives that you’re interested in?

Well, I’m not there yet. I’ll be there August 15. But I think people will realize pretty quickly through social media that I’m very accessible and that I would be happy to reach out to them, but they can also reach out to me. What I’ve done here in Cincinnati is support, to the best of my ability, all the groups in the institution. So that is a particular passion of mine, absolutely, and it’s something that I speak about and try to raise money for, and I will do the same in Vancouver and at UBC.

Will you be bringing your dog Romeo to work with you?

Actually, I was told that people do that. The reaction to Romeo has been incredible and so why not? I won’t do it all the time, but I figure whatever makes people laugh and smile. I think it’s been known to actually have a positive impact on the wellness of everyone. Why not?

Last but not least, are you a Canucks fan?

Oh, absolutely. I’m in a city that has no hockey, so I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to that, and the soccer team as well. Obviously the team I’m going to have to root for, though, are the Thunderbirds.

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