Professor Santa Ono

One-on-One with
Professor Santa Ono, UBC’s 15th President and Vice-Chancellor

One-on-One is an ongoing series aimed at getting ‘behind the scenes’ with senior leadership at UBC.

Professor Santa Ono is UBC’s 15th President and Vice-Chancellor. Prior to joining UBC, Professor Ono served as the President of the University of Cincinnati (UC). Under his leadership, UC achieved its largest enrolment in its history and received numerous accolades, including being named Public University of the Year by the Washington Center.

Earlier in his career, Professor Ono served in a variety of teaching, research and administrative positions at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and the Schepens Eye Research Institute, University College London and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2012, inducted as a member of the National Academy of Inventors in 2014, and inducted into the Johns Hopkins University Society of Scholars in 2015. His principal research interests focus on the immune system and eye disease.


What quality do you most admire in a leader?

SO: I admire humility because it is an indicator that you are willing to listen and put the needs of others before yourself. The goal of leadership is to serve.


What makes you laugh?

SO: When I was in Chicago, I had the privilege of being able to take part in a skit at The Second City comedy club. I got to take part in some improvisation with them, which was a great experience.

Closer to home, my daughters make me laugh, as well as my dog, Romeo. Romeo is a quirky dog and has become a bit of a celebrity since we moved here. He is six-years-old and I think he may be going through a mid-life crisis of sorts. He hasn’t asked for a red sports car yet!


Who inspires you, and why?

SO: I am inspired by a diverse group of people. Some are scientists, educational leaders as well as activists trying to do social good. Just recently I met with some individuals who had been instrumental in giving honorary degrees to students who’d had to leave the university during World War II. I am inspired by those who are not motivated by their own self good, but by the good of others.


What song did you sing out loud as a teenager?

SO: The first rock concert I ever went to was REO Speedwagon, back when I was around 17-years-old. My second concert was Rush, and my third concert was Elton John. I am a big fan of Elton John’s Your Song. I also love Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.


How do you like to recharge?

SO: I enjoy walking around campus with my wife, Wendy and our dog, Romeo. We try to walk at least once a day.


For you, what makes UBC different?

SO: This campus is one of the most stunning environments in the world, surrounded by the mountains and the ocean. I also believe that UBC has made a real difference to how we teach, with faculty and staff creating new and different approaches to teaching.


You are known for being active on social media. How did you get so engaged in those channels?

SO: When I was at Emory University I didn’t use any social media — I didn’t even know how to text! My students kept texting me and told me to set up a Facebook page.

Then when I became President of the University of Cincinnati, my communications team encouraged me to set up a Twitter feed. I remember it was relatively new and we were working with Hootsuite, which funnily enough is a Vancouver-based company. Since then, I have become a bit of a Twitter addict. Both Wendy and I are on Twitter, and I have to make a conscious choice to leave my phone at home when we eat out as a family. It’s important to be present.


What is the best advice you were ever given?

SO: Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I was a graduate student in Montreal, I was very focused. I was fortunate to have a pastor at my Sunday School who reminded me not to take myself too seriously.


What do you value in your colleagues?

SO: A sense of humour and honesty. I value people who put the institution first and work as a team, in the interests of the university as a whole.


If you could have a super power, what would it be?

SO: It would be to have the power to ease suffering, particularly for those with mental illness. It is estimated that almost half of all students struggle with mental illness at some point in their academic life. I believe my role is to look after the wellbeing of our students.


How does it feel to return to the university where your father was a math professor?

SO: It feels very special to return to the university where my father taught. My father was almost speechless when I told him I was the 15th President and Vice-Chancellor. Both my father and brother will be returning to UBC for my installation. They will both speak for the first time in the same math department.


What are your hopes for UBC during your time as President? What would you like to be remembered for?

SO: I hope people will feel that we, as a team, brought positive change to the institution. I would like UBC to become an even more prominent research powerhouse, with teaching at the centre. I also hope that people will have even greater pride in our university, and that it becomes a sought-after destination for faculty and staff.

On a personal note, I would like to be remembered as someone who cared for people as individuals. Someone who took an interest in each person at UBC as a unique gift to our special community of scholars.

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