UBC's new president vows to restore transparency

Santa Ono takes the reins amid ongoing criticisms of UBC's governance and its handling of campus sexual assaults

VANCOUVER – The University of British Columbia’s new president is promising greater transparency while listening to students and faculty, as he joins the institution at a tumultuous time in its history.

Santa Ono, 53, who was born in Vancouver and has served as president of the University of Cincinnati since 2012, will take the reins amid ongoing criticisms of UBC’s governance and its handling of campus sexual assaults.

The renowned biomedical researcher told an enthusiastic crowd inside the university’s law school that leading UBC is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity that he could not pass up.

“I view myself as a servant leader,” he said. “I see my job as working on behalf of the entire UBC community. I am working to serve you, not vice versa.”

The university has been gripped by a governance crisis since last August, when former president Arvind Gupta abruptly resigned. In the months that followed, the board chairman stepped down amid an academic freedom controversy and the faculty association passed a resolution declaring it had lost confidence in the board.

Ono, the son of a Japanese-born professor who taught math at UBC in the 1960s, said he wasn’t scared off by the events of the past 10 months.

“In fact, it made me even more interested in coming here to contribute to this university that is so dear to my family, and doing everything in my power to help the institution become even more outstanding,” he said.

He told reporters he met with the board of governors and new chairman Stuart Belkin and he felt confident that work to improve transparency and accountability had already begun.

The university has also faced accusations that it delayed taking action on multiple sexual assault allegations against a PhD student. Ono said he had handled similar problems in Cincinnati.

“I’m very experienced in dealing with these sorts of issues,” he said. “We can move forward.”

Faculty association president Mark Mac Lean said Ono’s opening remarks showed he is well aware that addressing UBC’s governance matters will be critical to regaining the confidence of professors.

“He has given strong signals that he desires to be a president that engages well with the faculty and that he sees himself as a member of the faculty,” Mac Lean said in an email.

Belkin praised Ono’s extraordinary life and accomplishments and said the board unanimously appointed him to a five-year term.

Ono will earn $470,000 annually. It’s a pay cut from his salary of US$525,000 at the University of Cincinnati, where in recent years he donated his bonuses to charity.

He holds a biology degree from the University of Chicago and an experimental medicine PhD from McGill University. His research has focused on the immune system and eye disease, and he has held prestigious positions at Harvard Medical School and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Ono drew praise last month when he spoke frankly about his experiences with depression, reminding students that mental illness can be treated. He revealed that he first tried to kill himself at 14 and his second attempt came in his mid-20s.

He is married to Chinese-Canadian lawyer Wendy Yip and the couple have two daughters, ages 11 and 18. His unusual first name is a shortened version of Santaro, a samurai from Japanese folklore.

He lived in an apartment on UBC’s campus for the first few years of his life, and he said he expects his parents to make an emotional visit to his new home, the 6,400-square foot Norman Mackenzie House.

“Thank you for making it possible for this Vancouver boy to return home,” he told the crowd. “You have honoured me greatly by giving me the chance to serve you.”

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