Santa Ono – creating new knowledge + making a difference at UBC
His blog is called Letters from Santa, he favours bow ties, plays the cello (well), and has an engaging smile and personality. He also tweets with the best of them. As the newly-minted President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia, Santa Jeremy Ono brings a breath of fresh air to the position. Although he has spent much of his life in the United States, he was born in St. Paul’s Hospital during the time his Japanese-born father was teaching at UBC. Ono’s parents and older brother emigrated from Japan following World War Two at the invitation of Robert Oppenheimer. His mathematician father worked for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and ended up in Vancouver for a time while waiting for his green card to be renewed.
Although the family returned to the States when he was a year old, Ono’s ties to Canada are more than superficial. His wife Wendy’s father is known as the “Canadian father of fibre optics,” while his mother-in-law is a member of the Order of Canada and a pediatrician in the faculty of medicine at McGill University in Montreal. Ono himself received his PhD in experimental medicine from McGill.
As for his name, his parents named him after Santaro, a Japanese folk samurai character. His brother, Momoro, got his name from Momotaro, another Japanese folk hero.
Santa Ono spoke to The Bulletin by email just after Christmas.
Bulletin Interview: Santa Ono
Your father, Takashi Ono, recently celebrated his 88th birthday – an auspicious occasion in Japanese culture. He retired from Johns Hopkins University not long ago himself. What kind of influence did he have on you, both in terms of your career and how you carry yourself as a human being?
My father is an extremely cultured individual with a dedication to scholarship. He taught all of us to strive for excellence and to appreciate all of the liberal arts. He also has a bizarre sense of humour which has been passed on to all of his children…and indeed his grandchildren.
Your two brothers are also active in academia – was this a given in your household growing up?
My older brother Momoro was destined to become a concert musician. He studied at Curtis, Juilliard and Peabody Conservatories and won a number of competitions as a child. He is now a professor of music at Creighton University. My brother Ken was always destined to be a mathematician. He has become a distinguished mathematician at Emory University, following in my father’s footsteps. I was quite openly described by my father’s friends as the “black sheep” of the family. I was the only son who would likely never become a scholar and would at best become a businessman. My father was very surprised when I actually graduated from The University of Chicago and received a PhD from McGill University. He was even more surprised when I joined the faculties of Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and received an endowed chair from University College London.
Tell me a bit about your childhood, and what your family life was like, and how it shaped you.
My parents were immigrants from Japan and came to this country with all of their belongings in one suitcase. My father was discovered by prominent mathematicians at the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study in New Jersey. Robert Oppenheimer was director of the Institute at the time. I was born in Vancouver, British Columbia when my father was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia. We then moved to Philadelphia and Baltimore when my father was recruited to professorships at the University of Pennsylvania and then the Johns Hopkins university. As immigrants with no family in the country, my parents stressed the importance of education and music during our childhood. My brother Momoro was valedictorian of his private school – The McDonough School. My brother Ken was a mathematical prodigy but was mad about competitive cycling. He played the violin, although he resented having to do so. I was the typical middle child, feeling somewhat neglected surrounded by my much more naturally gifted siblings. I learned to play the cello, a gift that I cherish even to this very day. Although the expectations for academic achievement in my family were intense, I am today very grateful for the standards that were set by my family. I also appreciate all the sacrifices my parents made so that their three sons could live better lives in North America.
What is the most important piece of advice your father has given you?
My father was very focussed on creating new knowledge and making a difference through one’s work. Although I think that – to this very day – my parents do not understand my field of scholarship and especially why I would take on the responsibility of university president, his advice to 1) focus on creating new knowledge and 2) making a difference, continue to serve as a guiding light in everything that I do.
Your father and one brother are gifted mathematicians. Do you have talents in that area?
I was always horrendous in mathematics. My mother had to take trigonometry with me at summer school at Johns Hopkins because I did not do well in trigonometry during the normal school year at Towson high school. I also took Analysis at the University of Chicago, wanting to finally make my father proud. I did terribly in that Analysis course. That made it crystal clear that I had absolutely no talent in mathematics.
As a leader, you set the tone for those working under your authority, and in a university setting you are also responsible for thousands of students. In such a large community, you can’t meet and interact with each faculty member and student individually – and you also can’t suddenly change direction all on your own. I imagine it’s like steering a very large ship. How do you go about manifesting your vision of what the University should be?
I do try my very best to visit every corner of the University and to speak personally with as many people as possible. However, it is impossible to interact personally with an immediate university community of almost 100,000 people and an alumni population of 310,000 people. Fortunately, modern technology and social media have allowed me to connect with over 100,000 people virtually and via their networks with over 1 million people. I was one of the first university presidents to embrace social media and have spoken and written about the amplifying effects of such media in enhancing the ability to communicate with various stakeholders.
You’re active on social media, and seem very comfortable tweeting and posting. Is it true you have over 73,000 Twitter followers and get up every morning at 4:30am to tweet?
Yes, I have that many Twitter followers on my @PrezOno twitter address and 10,400 followers already on a new UBC Twitter address @UBCPrez. I’m amazed that I’ve connected with so many people at UBC in just five months. It took six years for me to reach 73,000 followers at UC! It is true that I tend to tweet early in the morning, between appointments, at the airport and after my kids go to bed.
Describe a typical day on the job, once you’ve finished tweeting.
The life of a university president at a large research university such as UBC is unrelenting. It’s usually back-to-back meetings six or seven days of the week and also involves many late-night activities. There are also many connections that one needs to make with the business community, government leaders and foundations. With research universities being global institutions, I also need to travel across the continent and around the world to connect with other university leaders and alumni. Interspersed among these meetings are meetings with the press, and with faculty, staff and students at the University. There are usually 10 requests for every available space on my calendar which requires that we be very selective in the activities that I can attend.
In my experience, many of those who aspire to leadership roles have no business being there, and the best leaders are sometimes those who don’t fit the mold. You describe yourself as a “servant leader.” What does that mean, and how does it manifest itself in your day-to-day life and your role as President of one of the world’s top universities?
Servant leadership is very atypical in large organizations. In large organizations, leadership styles are usually very hierarchical. Servant leadership flattens the organizational structure and provides a voice to individuals throughout the organization. In many ways, servant leadership aligns well with the shared governance model that is at the core of academia. By flattening the organizational structure, servant leaders are able to better serve the various stakeholders of their organization. The servant leader is also more cognizant of the needs and wishes of their communities.
Have you always had aspirations to leadership? And who are your role models in that regard?
Come to think about it, probably yes. I first ran for office at Hampton Elementary School in Baltimore in the 5th grade. Although I was elected, I remember how disappointed the faculty advisor was in my performance as a leader in the fifth grade. I was elected Vice-President of student government at Ridgely Junior High School. And in high school, I ran for Senior Class President, and was devastated to lose by just a few votes. I became involved in activist activities. I volunteered in an organization created by Ralph Nader that work to pass the Clean Water Act. I also volunteered in the summer with the American Red Cross to help work with inner-city youth at a summer camp. And finally, in my senior year, at Towson High School, I helped organize the creation of a giant Christmas card that we sent to the hostages in Iran.
I have so many role models, including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Francis Collins, Neil Armstrong and Yo-Yo Ma.
You’ve only been in town a short time, but already have made a big effort to embed yourself in the local community – based on the many photos of you with students and faculty, at least – how has your welcome been?
I’m incredibly grateful for the warm welcome that I and my family have received thus far in Vancouver. It’s always an adjustment to move to a new institution in new city. I’d say that the reception I have received here has been among the warmest I have received in any institution, and I greatly appreciate that. That being said, the relationship I had with the community in Cincinnati and University of Cincinnati was very special. I think very few leaders have been better received than I was in Cincinnati. For that reason, Cincinnati will always have a very special place in my heart.
What are your impressions of UBC and Vancouver so far?
The University of British Columbia is clearly a world-class institution. However, there is a thirst throughout the community for us to become an even greater community of scholars. Through our strategic planning process, I hope that we can define a series of action steps to really strengthen the University further. We owe that to the city of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia and Canada.
You’re an accomplished cellist, in fact you and your brothers all studied at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory of Music. Did you ever have to make the choice between a career as a musician and as a academic?
I was very fortunate to be exposed to some amazing cellists in my childhood. Two major cellists listened to me when I was about 10 years old – Laurence Lesser and Stephen Kates. I studied directly with their students: Carolyn Hopkins, Paula Kiffner and Carter Brey. I stopped practising cello when I entered university and only picked it up again briefly during graduate school at McGill University. During my years there, my thesis supervisor teased me by asking whether I was a molecular biologist or cellist. There was one point during grad school where I played for the cellist Bob Bardston at a summer music camp in the Laurentians. He really inspired me and let me play his very expensive cello. I’m actually in a Canadian movie about him where there are scenes of him coaching me at that camp. He was going to teach cello in Germany and asked me at the time whether I would be interested in leaving graduate school at McGill and studying cello in Germany via a Deutsche Gramophone scholarship. I also had the pleasure during those years of playing chamber music with McGill University Conservatory students. Several of them felt that my playing had reached a level that would allow me to switch from graduate studies in Experimental Medicine to a bachelor’s program in cello performance. I ultimately did not go to Germany or transfer to Music.
I stopped playing cello for almost 30 years as I advanced through the faculty ranks and obtained tenure. Hearing a small inner-city youth ensemble play chamber music, I was inspired to pick up the cello again about two years ago while I was president of University of Cincinnati. Very fortunately I was encouraged to play by the fine faculty at CCM (such as Alan Rafferty, Kurt Sassmannshaus and Ilya Finkelshteyn) and was so graciously accepted as a member of Alan Rafferty’s studio. I’m forever grateful to them and the awesome students at CCM for putting up with me while I tried to learn to play the cello again. Many of them helped me work through difficult passages and provided fingerings for music that they had already played. I love the CCM community and miss them.
You take over the reins of UBC in the midst of some turmoil, specifically the departure of the previous President after only a year and the controversy over the dismissal of Steven Galloway from the creative writing department. These are issues you inherited, but do they bring added pressure to your new position? And are they distractions from the work at hand?
Every university where I have worked has its share of problems. UBC, contrary to certain media reports, is nothing special in having such challenges. Actually, I think there are relatively few challenges at UBC relative to most major universities. Nevertheless, these challenges are complicated and their solutions are not always straightforward. I wouldn’t call them distractions because they are part of the job, but they do take away from the major focus of leading the university’s core academic mission.
UBC recently turned 100, another auspicious landmark. How do universities navigate the many challenges of the 21st Century? Is there a pressure to “move with the times”?
Universities are in a constant state of evolution. The successful navigation through these challenges requires that the administration work together with the faculty, staff and students at the University toward collective goals. That’s the whole purpose of the strategic planning process that we have initiated. As I said in my installation address, the “keys” to a university’s future reside not with the president alone, but with every member of the community.
75 years ago, UBC students of Japanese descent were told to pack their bags as part of the mass expulsion of Japanese Canadians from the west coast. Today we have our first UBC President of Asian descent, a distinction that is not lost on members of our community. Do you feel any special pressure to “do good”?
I have been the first Asian or Japanese-Canadian leader at various stages of my career. I was the first Asian American president in the state of Ohio. Every step of the way I have endeavoured to excel not only for myself but also for people of Japanese ancestry. My feeling of responsibility has been accentuated by the powerful remarks by Joy Kogawa at my installation ceremony. She remarked that my elevation to the presidency of UBC was an historic moment in Canada. And just a few days ago, I met a renowned Japanese clinical scientist who came up to me with his wife and said “you are – for Japanese Canadians – our Obama.” But undoubtedly the most powerful reminder of my responsibility, comes from several letters, written in pencil, from grade school kids across North America who have written to me saying that I am their role model. Yes, I do feel both a privilege and responsibility to perform well.