On paper, Santa Ono has the kind of credentials any university seeking a new president would find compelling.
Noted researcher and scholar with a doctorate in experimental medicine from McGill University. Stops at medical schools at Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities. An accomplished cellist. Son of a noted mathematician. Four years as president of the University of Cincinnati, where he established a reputation as an empathetic collaborator who formed a special bond with students. A social media trailblazer with tens of thousands of Twitter followers.
But does it all add up to the kind of leader a postsecondary institution that has endured one of the toughest, most turbulent years in its century of existence needs? The University of British Columbia thinks so and on Monday announced Dr. Ono as the school's 15th president. The move was widely hailed, including by some of those who have been among the most vocal critics of the school's current governing authorities.
"I can't really think of a better choice," Prof. Jennifer Berdahl told me over the phone.
Prof. Berdahl, of course, was at the centre of the dispute that erupted over the dismissal of Arvind Gupta as president last summer after only one year on the job. She had speculated on a blog that Dr. Gupta had been the victim of discrimination, which prompted a call from the chair of the university's board of directors, who wanted to voice his dismay with her. Prof. Berdahl, in turn, alleged her academic freedom had been infringed upon.
It ultimately led to the resignation of the board chair and precipitated months of terrible headlines chronicling widespread student and faculty unhappiness. There were unrelated troubles connected to sexual assault on campus, as well as sexual harassment.
It led many to ask: Who in their right mind would want the president's job?
As it turns out, Santa Ono, who does seem like a perfect fit – someone with the kind of academic resumé that befits a world-leading university like UBC, but also the kind of reputation that makes you feel the search committee not only got someone with the right letters and qualifications behind his name but also the type of kindly disposition and even-handed temperament the school needs at the moment.
Also, anyone who lists Steely Dan as one of his favourite bands has my vote.
At his news conference on Monday, Dr. Ono, 53, said all the right things. He promised to immediately reach out to staff, administrators, students and government. Faculty would have been relieved to hear him say: "I'm a professor first and foremost … a leader from within the faculty." He referred to himself as a "servant leader." In the only reference to the turmoil the university has gone through, he said: "I have not been scared off by the last 10 months."
Which is a good thing. Because UBC now has a president who has the potential to be special, a Vancouver-born leader who could well take the university further up the rankings of the top postsecondary institutions in the world. He seems like someone who can also bring harmony to the place, something it desperately needs. It is now a time for healing to take place, for broken relationships to be restored.
There are a couple of things in Dr. Ono's personal story that really stood out for me.
One is that while he was at the University of Cincinnati, he got into the habit of giving away his annual bonus to charity. We are talking about $200,000 (U.S.) a year. I'm sorry, but there are few, if any, top university officials who do this. Or who refuse to accept a mandated raise, which is something else Dr. Ono did. That says a lot about a person.
So does the fact he has been open about his past struggles with mental illness, which largely revolved around the extraordinary expectations with which he grew up. Those pressures, he recently revealed, led him to twice attempt suicide, when he was 14 and 20.
It is never easy to make those kinds of disclosures to a wider audience. It's rarer still to find someone holding the type of job Dr. Ono does to reveal this sort of thing. Most people would prefer it be kept in-family, for fear that others would regard him differently or that it might scare off future employers.
Thankfully, UBC looked at it as a sign of personal enlightenment instead, and now the school has one of the most highly touted university presidents anywhere. His arrival couldn't have come at a better time.